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For 14 years, a lonely man named James Collins dropped in several times a week at his lawyer’s office in Alameda, where he sought not only business help, but companionship and love — especially with the office secretary. She says she became like a daughter to him; the man’s family claims she merely took advantage of his innocence. When Collins died in 2002 at the age of 78, he bequeathed as much as $400,000 to the secretary, Barbara Hanson. An exact figure has yet to be determined. With In re the Collins Trust, 2002255983, the man’s family members have tried to convince Alameda County Superior Court Judge William McKinstry to invalidate the secretary’s inheritance. This week, McKinstry ordered attorneys to try to settle the case after they resolved a key issue: Hanson and W. Lansing “Lance” Russum, who served as Collins’ attorney, both resigned as trustees. Throughout the trial, Collins’ relatives have argued that the law bars the lawyer who drafts a trust — and the lawyer’s employees — from inheriting anything unless an independent attorney reviews the trust. Russum failed to do that, the family’s attorneys say. Both sides must choose a new trustee by April 18, the judge said. And Hanson doesn’t have sterling credentials in the handling of other people’s money, the plaintiffs say. In 2002 she was convicted of embezzling $80,000 from a law firm owned by her husband. The embezzlement forced the firm into bankruptcy. On top of that, Russum admitted on the stand that he and his employees routinely inherited from clients until a 1994 law made it more difficult. So, say the plaintiffs, she had plenty of incentive to cozy up to a rich, unsophisticated client. Hanson, 32, is a petite, pixie-faced woman who testified that she and Collins formed a tight bond over the years. Soft-spoken and conservatively dressed in a black pantsuit, black sweater and white collared shirt on her first day on the witness stand, Hanson testified under questioning from her attorney, Reed Smith Crosby Heafey partner Bette Epstein, that Collins called the office “four or five” times a week, asking for her specifically. While Hanson acknowledges that Collins once had a crush on her — he offered to adopt her children and asked her to move into his house — she said a father-daughter type of bond eventually developed. In fact, Collins gave her control of his medical care when his health deteriorated, she testified. She promptly fired his longtime staff and hired new workers, the plaintiffs say. And even during the last moments of his life, Hanson said, she was at Collins’ bedside, along with his family. Weeping, she testified that he told her, “I’m not ready to go.” Then, she said, “I told him that he needed to go. He said, ‘I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you too.’” But Collins’ relatives say the love was one-sided. Not only did Hanson use undue influence on him, they contend, she rarely introduced him to her friends, and she didn’t invite him to her family’s gatherings. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Alameda solo Laurence Padway, said Hanson has been married three times and has been dogged by financial problems. He argued in court that it’s no coincidence that Collins added her to an early version of his estate plan shortly after she filed for bankruptcy. Padway also said that after embezzling money from her husband’s law firm, she tried to cover her tracks while she used the stolen money to pay her Visa bill and to go on Louis Vuitton shopping trips. Hanson’s well-connected defense attorney at the time, William Gagen, helped her get sentenced to 60 days in a jail-work furlough program and five years of probation. The maximum sentence was four years in prison. And Collins’ relatives aren’t the only ones eyeing the secretary’s inheritance. Hanson’s husband, Christopher, wants his wife to use her windfall to reimburse him for the money he shelled out for her legal defense and for restitution in the embezzlement case. Barbara Hanson left Russum’s firm in 2000 and went to work for Caron, Eastridge & Hanson, (now Caron & Eastridge) where she was later accused of embezzlement. In a letter to the Alameda County probation department, Hanson said that he was “utterly stunned” that his wife of less than two years was skimming money from his firm. “Barbara and I have had to work hard to rebuild the ‘trust’ in our relationship,” Hanson wrote. Christopher Hanson, who filed papers as an “objector” in the inheritance litigation, is representing himself. In February 2002, Barbara Hanson began working for San Francisco solo Kevin Finck. After Hanson was convicted, the firm decided to let Hanson stay because she didn’t handle the company’s money, according to a letter Finck’s staff wrote to the probation department. Russum, an Alameda solo, testified that he was Collins’ longtime attorney and rarely billed the man because he considered him a friend. Russum said he warned Collins that the inheritance for Hanson could be contested unless another lawyer examined it, but Collins adamantly refused to get an outside attorney. Instead, he signed a waiver declining that right, according to Russum. Before Russum stepped down as trustee on Tuesday, the Hansons and Collins’ family had asked McKinstry to remove Russum from that post. On Wednesday, Russum’s lawyer said that his client’s decision to step aside doesn’t mean that Russum’s actions were improper. “Absolutely not,” said H. Wayne Goodroe, an Alameda solo. “We have all the faith that the judgment [will be] in favor of the validity of the gift to Barbara Hanson.” The motives of Collins’ family are under a microscope, too. The defense says Collins’ primary heir, cousin Jean Lawrence, pressured Collins to leave her the house. Defense attorney Epstein has argued in court papers that the Collins relatives didn’t take an active role in coordinating the man’s medical needs. The judge is urging the parties to settle, but if that doesn’t happen, he will have to sort through conflicting testimony about how easily Collins could have been manipulated. Padway, the family’s attorney, says Collins was a little slow. Collins worked for 35 years in PG&E’s mailroom before he retired in 1987. He lived with his mother — who passed on her house and wealth to him when she died in 1991 — and was taken care of by of female relatives. Collins’ former bookkeeper testified that he had trouble reading, didn’t pay his own bills and couldn’t balance his checkbook. Collins suffered from frequent panic attacks and rarely strayed from Alameda, witnesses said. Collins’ psychiatrist testified that Collins was childlike and easily influenced, Padway said. Attorneys for Russum and the Hansons counter that Collins may have been a simple man, but he wasn’t stupid. He graduated from high school and a local business school and merely hired a bookkeeper and other staff because he was lonely. Since his mother and other relatives cared for him most of his life, Collins simply never learned how to do many mundane tasks, they argued. The cast of attorneys is an interesting mix. Epstein, who specializes in estates and trusts, has appeared before McKinstry many times. The rest of the lawyers, who all hail from Alameda, have crossed paths before. Padway, the family attorney, has teamed up with another local solo, Matthew Duncan. Duncan used to work for Russum before he started his own practice. Padway and Duncan work in the same Oak Street office building. Goodroe is a former Burnham Brown partner whose office is across the street from Russum’s. Christopher Hanson, who is a civil attorney, also practices in Alameda. He’s in the same building as his defunct firm. Closing arguments are scheduled for April 25.

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