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When Nettie Banks died in 1997 at the age of 94, the D.C. resident left an estate valued at about $800,000. More than five years have passed since her will was filed in D.C. Superior Court’s Probate Division, and not one of the 19 named heirs has received his or her portion of the estate. Roughly $400,000 in cash is unaccounted for, and taxes owed by the estate have been estimated to be more than $30,000. Three houses that were supposed to go to people named in the will are now likely to be sold to make up for the estate’s losses. “I don’t see why they should punish me for something that somebody else did,” says James Armstrong, a longtime tenant of Nettie Banks’ who was supposed to inherit one of the houses. He’s been told he has to vacate the premises by the beginning of November so the house can be put on the market. Last month, Robert Gazzola, a lawyer ordered by the court to investigate the matter as a special master, filed a report on the status of the estate. While he was unable to explain what had happened to Nettie Banks’ money, Gazzola concluded that the original executor of the estate, Arthur Freeman Sr., “grossly violated his fiduciary duties with no apparent excuse, failed to comply with court orders, and failed to fully cooperate with the Special Master.” In his Sept. 23 report, Gazzola recommended that D.C. Superior Court Judge Jose Lopez, who is scheduled to hold an Oct. 18 hearing on the case, enter judgment against Freeman for $300,000 or more, although the 81-year-old Freeman says in an affidavit that he has few assets. In his report, Gazzola says that Freeman’s lawyer had produced a copy of a $50,000 promissory note “signed by Mr. Freeman, and represented as an asset of the Estate on which Mr. Freeman was making payments.” Gazzola also recommended referring the matter to law enforcement officials. Spokesman Channing Phillips of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District confirms that the office has launched an investigation. Freeman said he was unaware of any criminal inquiry and referred questions to his attorney, Kurt Berlin of D.C.’s Obergh & Berlin. “I have read the [special master's] report,” Berlin says. “We will not comment.” 1994 LAW CHANGED PROCEDURE The Banks case highlights the shortcomings of a 1994 law intended to make it easier for people to open and close estates in D.C. Superior Court. That law allows for individuals to file “unsupervised” probate actions, meaning the court is only involved for administrative matters at the beginning of the case. Prior to 1995, executors were required to file detailed accounting briefs with the court every nine months, among other requirements. According to the law, interested parties can request supervised probate at any time if they feel the personal representative, or executor, is not behaving properly. And if an estate is not closed within three years, then the executor’s appointment is “automatically terminated” by law. According to D.C. court statistics, unsupervised probate makes up 99 percent of all probate cases filed under the 1994 law. In 2001, there were 1,458 probate cases filed requesting unsupervised probate, compared with 18 supervised cases opened. When the probate reform legislation was being debated in 1994, Superior Court Judge Wendell Gardner Jr., then the presiding judge of the Probate Division, warned the D.C. Council that unsupervised probate could lead to overbilling, mismanagement, or fraud. D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III says most unsupervised probate cases are opened and closed without any court involvement. The only time judges become involved, King adds, is if heirs or creditors request their attention. “The court has no role in unsupervised probate unless and until someone says there’s a problem here,” King says. “Once they do that, we handle it like any civil case.” J. Gordon Forester, past president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia who helped draft the probate reform legislation, says the D.C. court has the same authority as it did under the old law to intervene if something is fishy. The only difference, he adds, is that one of the interested parties must bring it to the court’s attention. “If someone wants to steal money from an estate they can, whether it is supervised or unsupervised probate,” says Forester. Samuel Harahan, former executive director of the Council for Court Excellence and a strong proponent of the 1994 legislation, says it might be time for the bench and the bar to take a look at whether the law is accomplishing what it was set up to do. NO RESOLUTION As for the estate of Nettie Banks, Freeman was removed from the case nearly one year ago, replaced as personal representative by Nettie Banks’ granddaughter. But that move has failed to bring resolution. In his report, Gazzola writes that he is “concerned about the lack of progress” of the estate, “evidenced by the failure [of the new personal representative] to file an inventory, contact tax authorities . . . or aggressively seek solutions.” Gazzola advised Judge Lopez to set a 90-day time frame within which the granddaughter, Deborah Banks Lange, and her lawyer submit a detailed plan of how to dispose of the estate. If the plan is unacceptable or one is not presented, Gazzola recommends “the replacement of the [new personal representative] with a highly experienced attorney” from a court-authorized list. Lange says she had been waiting for Freeman to comply with Lopez’s order to turn over all documents relating to the estate before proceeding with its closure. “I was waiting for Freeman to supply us with all the information which we never received,” Lange says. “Based on this report, it appears we’re never going to receive it.” She adds that she and her lawyer, J. Michael Springmann, have put together a time line to close the estate that includes selling the houses. Springmann, while vowing to move ahead, says he is frustrated: “Nobody to this day is interested in finding out what happened to this money.” HOMEMAKER TURNED LANDLORD Nettie Banks’ granddaughter Lange describes her grandmother as a homemaker turned landlord. Lange says the Banks family began buying property more than 50 years ago. The first house was purchased with the settlement proceeds received when Nettie’s husband, Harvey, was severely injured while working as a crane operator, Lange says. The two lived in their own house at 910 Decatur St., N.W., near the Petworth neighborhood. At one point, Lange says, Banks owned a dozen houses in the city. Some were sold, while others were rented out. Harvey Banks died in 1960, and the Banks’ only son died in 1979. Lange says her family became estranged from Nettie Banks after her father’s death. According to friend Ruby Gray, Banks was very active with the Shiloh Baptist Church at Ninth and P streets in Northwest Washington and was an ordained minister. She suffered three strokes by the mid-1990s, which left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. Rev. Ronald Austin, who first met Nettie Banks at Shiloh Baptist Church, says he would drop by regularly to bring Banks communion. In May 1996 — one year before her death — Banks changed her will to name Freeman as personal representative. The will was filed with the court four days after Banks’ death in June 1997. It specifically called for $100,000 in cash to be dispersed among 15 different heirs. There were three houses: one for Rev. Austin; another for the Shiloh Baptist Church; and the Decatur Street house, which was supposed to go to James Armstrong, who had rented the basement apartment in the home for several years. The will designated that if Freeman properly closed the estate, he would be left with the remainder — once taxes and any other creditors were paid. The will also gave Freeman permission to manage the estate without having to post a money bond to secure the estate’s assets. Lange, who is supposed to inherit $25,000 and some personal possessions, says her family initially hired a lawyer to look into challenging the validity of the will — saying that her grandmother was born without a left hand, and her right side was paralyzed by the time the will was signed. For the first two years after Nettie Banks’ death, some of the heirs say they would periodically ask Freeman when they would receive their share of the estate. Every time, they say, he would tell them it would happen soon. Lange hired Springmann after she learned that her grandmother’s longtime attorney, Jerome Friedlander II, had quit representing the estate. Springmann filed a complaint in July 2001 asking that Freeman be removed as executor and be replaced by his client. Springmann noted in his brief that more than three years had passed and the estate was still open. (Friedlander declines comment.) Judge Lopez sent the case to mediation. The first hearing on the complaint was held in November, at which time Freeman’s second lawyer, James Wright, who had been on the case more than a year, asked to step down and Freeman offered to remove himself as representative. Lopez ordered Freeman to file a full accounting by mid-January 2002 and pay Lange for all her court fees. Freeman has yet to comply with that order, according to the special master’s report. By the end of January, Springmann had learned that there was just over $19,000 in the estate’s bank accounts. He filed another motion asking Lopez to require Freeman to turn over all accounting material and reimburse the estate for the $400,000 that was missing. Five months later, Judge Lopez granted the motion and set a July hearing, at which Gazzola was named special master. Gazzola’s report states that Freeman’s lawyer Berlin offered to settle the matter for $152,000. However, the same report notes that Freeman filed an affidavit stating that he had only $48 and two small pieces of land in Richmond, Va. Gazzola, noting Freeman’s lack of funds, requested that he be paid for his work as special master from estate money. The heirs who tried to take action in the Banks case say they have met with confusion every step of the way. Gray says she didn’t know where she could turn to for information about the estate. The lawyers were no help, and neither was the court, she says. Armstrong hired a lawyer to find out what was happening with the case, yet still got no answers. Lange says she is upset that she may have to sell the homes to make up for the losses — particularly the house where her grandmother lived. That house is supposed to go to Armstrong, who Lange says helped to take care of Banks. “He was always the one, if my grandmother got sick and needed to go to the hospital, he would call me and I’d go down,” Lange says. Lange says she called Armstrong and told him that he should be at the Oct. 18 hearing to object to the sale.

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