Winning Without a Fight

A growing alternative to lawsuits helps people get what they need without a costly court battle

With death from cancer closing in, Gladys had some finalwishes. One stuck out above all: She wanted Joseph, her husband of 48 years, to remarry. He just wasn't the sort to get by without a woman to take care of him.In January 1980, at the age of 69, Gladys died in bed in the Pinellas beach home she had shared with Joseph since the early '70s. It had been, by all accounts, a good life, filled with religion and hard work, a life blessed with a strong marriage and four children who had really made something of themselves.

Gladys never envisioned that 23 years later, two of her children would end up in a St. Petersburg law office trying to settle a dispute over her estate, hoping to fend off a lawsuit and the likelihood of several more. She couldn't have guessed that Joseph would have raided her estate in order to buy retirement home contracts for him and the second wife, or that her carefully laid plans might leave her children short of the inheritance she intended.

Fortunately this unexpected turn of events had a relatively happy ending. By using an increasingly popular means of dispute resolution — mediation rather than litigation — her children and the second wife saved tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, got the best result they could under the circumstances and averted what could have become a scorched-earth family feud.

This is the story of how it worked.

Gladys and Joseph were in their teens when they met at the Nazarene Church in their hometown, a working class suburb of Boston. They married in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. They were both 21. Neither came from money. They would have to make it on their own.Joseph opened a radio repair shop and did OK. He landed a job at a large department store and worked his way up to service manager. The children, three boys and a girl, were born between 1935 and 1940.

Gladys worked outside the house when she could. She took a job selling Spirella undergarments door to door. The mother of legendary boxer Rocky Marciano was one of her customers.

By 1945, the couple had done well enough to build a vacation cottage on a lake in New England. To help pay for it, Gladys ran a tearoom there a few summers. For decades, it remained the family's getaway. In 1949, the store sent Joseph to one of the first television repair schools. Within a year, he'd become service manager for New England. In '55, he was named national service manager and moved the family to suburban Chicago, close to company headquarters.

Joseph loved reading and classical music, but it was Gladys who pushed the kids into higher education. The oldest son received a master's in electrical engineering, the second son a degree in chemistry. Son number three, Edwin, earned a doctorate in political science and was a professor of Soviet studies at Ohio State from 1964 to 1990. Jan, the youngest, received a master's in education and opened her own Montessori-style school, which she still runs.

Over the years, Gladys inherited modest sums from relatives. Like many married couples, she and her husband decided to establish separate trusts. Most of Gladys' money had gone into purchasing the Florida house and improving the New England bungalow, so they decided to put the homes in her trust. The arrangements were finalized in May 1977, a month after Gladys' cancer was diagnosed. Even though she encouraged Joseph to remarry, she didn't want the money in her trust to benefit a second wife. That was for her kids. She named her son Edwin co-trustee with Joseph.

Gladys had two long-time friends who pursued Joseph after she died. The kids figured he'd marry one of them. Then Sarah came along. The widow was a year older, lived a few blocks down and had known Joseph and Gladys only casually. Six months after Gladys died, Joseph invited her to the lake house up north, a bit of a shock to his kids. They married the following summer.

Sarah was more social, less refined, than Gladys. She and Joseph took dance lessons together, ate out a lot with friends. Sarah took care of Joseph, but that became harder and harder as he pushed 90 and she started to develop dementia. By 2000, the beach home was getting too much for the elderly couple, so they made plans to move into a nice retirement facility in Pinellas County.

This is when Joseph invaded his late wife's trust. In May 2000, he took out an equity line against the beach house, using nearly all of the money to buy contracts for him and Sarah at the retirement home. Co-trustee Edwin, who was working in Eastern Europe during the transaction, says he was left out of the loop. A bank and title company erred by expediting the mortgage without his involvement. Four months later, Joseph put a For Sale sign outside the house and, as his daughter Jan put it, "sold it to the first person that walked in. He got about half of what he could have. Something was wrong with my dad when he sold that house."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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