4th DCA (Melanie Bell)
An attorney for friends of a Standard Oil heiress who claim they were cheated out of their share of her $44 million estate argued Tuesday on appeal to resuscitate a dismissed lawsuit.
Anne Pierce McBride, 61, of Palm Beach died of breast cancer June 1, 2005, five days after she changed her will and two days after she remarried her ex-husband, Wolfgang Von Falkenberg, in a hospice.
Christian Finucane, Olaf Finucane and Christine Gordon alleged constructive fraud and intentional interference with their expected inheritance. Palm Beach Circuit Judge Sandra McSorley dismissed the lawsuit, finding they had an adequate alternative remedy they failed to exhaust.
Jeffrey Skatoff of Clark Skatoff in Palm Beach Gardens argued to the Fourth District Court of Appeal that the trust contest in probate court before Circuit Judge Jack Cook should not be a barrier to another civil action.
Cook found their probate case filed in 2011 was untimely and barred by a four-year statute of repose. They did not appeal his decision.
Skatoff argued his clients didn’t question the will earlier because they trusted Von Falkenberg’s claims that there wasn’t enough money in the estate even to pay the $500,000 bequests left to the plaintiffs in the amended will, but he would pay the bequests from his own money.
It was not until after the statute of repose expired that they learned the McBride trust was worth $44 million.
In McBride’s 2004 will, she left most of her fortune to charity. The rest was to be divided in seven shares. Von Falkenberg would get two-sevenths, and the plaintiffs would each get one-seventh. The amounts were not specified, but the complaint asserts each would have received several million dollars.
The altered will left $43 million in cash, securities and property in Florida, California and Hawaii to Von Falkenberg, the court documents state.
Fourth District Judge Melanie May questioned whether the plaintiffs were allowed to bring a cause of action after they received the bequests, which were honored.
“I can find no jurisprudence that requires that one must divest himself of the benefit before filing a tort action,” Skatoff said.
Judge W. Matthew Stevenson asked how it was possible to claim the parties lacked an opportunity to investigate the wills.
The Finucanes filed affidavits saying both were told by Von Falkenberg there wasn’t enough money left to pay the bequests, Skatoff said.
“It’s that particular misrepresentation that induced my clients not to investigate,” he said. “That caused them to sit on their rights until after the four-year statute of repose expired.”
Jack Aiello of Gunster in West Palm Beach, attorney for Von Falkenberg, argued Cook decided the case correctly. He ruled there couldn’t be evidence of fraudulent concealment because Von Falkenberg had no duty to disclose information about the will.
“But under the plaintiffs’ theory, if they had made an inquiry, that answer according to them would’ve likely been no, so how else would they have known?” Judge Jonathan Gerber asked.
If Von Falkenberg “had lied to them? That would’ve been different. Then he would have taken an affirmative step to mislead,” Aiello said, referring to a hypothetical deposition and testimony under oath.
“That didn’t happen. They didn’t make that inquiry. That’s a different case,” Aiello said.
Aiello also argued the issues were already decided by Cook and therefore could not be reevaluated by McSorley.
Skatoff denied that. The probate challenge alleged McBride lacked the capacity to legally change her will while on a morphine drip in her dying days, and Von Falkenberg exercised undue influence. However, the civil tort action raised interference with an expectancy, constructive fraud and continuing fraud claims. Had the plaintiffs stayed in probate court and appealed, they would never have reached the merits of the case.
“They suggest we do something futile,” Skatoff said. “We didn’t have our day in court.”
McBride’s remarriage caught the attention of the Florida Legislature. In 2010, it passed what was known as the Deathbed Marriage Law, which allows heirs to scrutinize whether such marriages involve fraud, duress or undue influence and bring a claim in probate court to cancel the marriage.
Before the change in law, the state generally provided a husband and wife were immune from a presumption of undue influence.