Revised will of recluse rejected Court upholds claim made by Daughters ofAmerican Revolution

February 28, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Carrying out the cryptic last wishes of a reclusive multimillionaire, a Baltimore County court ended a battle of wills yesterday and awarded nearly $1 million of the fortune to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The will of Olive Swindells -- a Lochearn resident who died in squalor in March despite having amassed a $4.4 million stock portfolio -- had pitted the DAR and Gallaudet University against each other in a legal struggle for part of the riches.

Mrs. Swindells' will left 80 percent of her estate to Gallaudet, the college for the deaf in Washington, and the remaining 20 percent to "the Daughters of the American Revolution Nursing Home for the use of the destitute members." But there is no such place exists.

So Mrs. Swindells, who lived like a pauper most of her 94 years and kept her vast wealth a secret, was cast into a spotlight that has shined on her more brightly in death than it ever did in life. Even Orphan's Court Judge Grace G. Connolly, who oversaw yesterday's hearing, called Mrs. Swindells "a most amazing woman. I'm sorry I never met her so she could manage my stock portfolio."

Mrs. Swindells was a member of the DAR and legally deaf. Gallaudet's 80 percent share of her estate, valued at about $4.7 million, comes to an uncontested $3.5 million, most of which the college already has received. But the college argued -- much to the displeasure of DAR officials -- that it also should get the remaining 20 percent.

Scott Kraigie, an attorney representing Gallaudet, told the court of a second, unsigned will that Mrs. Swindells had ordered her attorney to prepare after she learned there was no DAR nursing home.

"When she learned there wasn't one, she decided not to leave anything to DAR and to give all the money to Gallaudet in the new will," Mr. Kraigie said.

That account was verified by Bruce Goodman, Mrs. Swindells' attorney, who prepared both wills. He said he had made two appointments with Mrs. Swindells so that she could sign the revised will, but that in both cases she canceled due to the ill health of her invalid husband, Bert. Roughly three months after she'd been told of the problem with the first will, she died of a stroke while doing her income tax return, leaving the second will unsigned.

Mrs. Swindells and her husband, who also was legally deaf, lived for more than 50 years at their home at 4110 Bedford Road, which by all accounts was a broken-down, trash-strewn eyesore. that seemed to be no place for millionaires. Mr. Kraigie argued that their lifestyle as deaf, poor people suggests something about Mrs. Swindells' intent in revising the will.

"As fate would have it, a lot of deaf people are poor," Mr. Kraigie told the court. "Mrs. Swindells wanted to do something for them. Gallaudet serves a large, poor population. While some members of the DAR are poor, the [bulk] of their membership is not."

Gallaudet, which used the $3 million it received late last year to help build a conference center, proposed using the remainder of the money for a sign language scholarship fund that would teach sign language to for older people losing their hearing.

But Christine N. Kearns, an attorney representing the DAR, successfully argued that the previous second will should have no bearing on the court's decision because "no one knows why she didn't sign it."

"One can only speculate that because she had ample time to review and sign it, she changed her mind and chose not to do so," said Ms. Kearns, who suggested that Gallaudet "take its $3 million it already has, spend it as it sees fit" and abandon its claim to the rest of the money.

The three-judge panel accepted Ms. Kearns' interpretation, of the revised will, with Judge Connolly noting, "If she had wanted to sign the will, she would have done it."

The court also accepted Ms. Kearns' argument that Maryland law allows charitable gifts to be "reformed" in a way most closely resembling the wishes of the deceased. In Mrs. Swindells' case, her desire to leave her money to a DAR nursing home will be reformed into "The Olive Swindells Endowment for the Study and Care of the Aged."

That endowment will provide funds for food, clothing, emergency home repairs and short-term nursing care for needy and elderly DAR members, as well as set up scholarships for the college-level study of social issues affecting the aged.

The DAR, founded in 1890, has more than 182,000 members and bills itself as "a service organization" that aims "to perpetuate the vTC memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved American independence and to foster true patriotism and love of country."

One of the few details known about Mrs. Swindells -- an intensely private woman whose biggest passions in life seemed to be her husband and her stock investing -- is that she was a member of the DAR for 69 years. An affidavit from Mrs. Charles Keil Kemper, the president of the national society of the DAR, said Mrs. Swindells joined the DAR in 1925.

Robert J. Jones, a DAR controller who attended yesterday's hearing, said the court's decision "was the right thing to do. We're very pleased. We felt [the endowment fund] was an important thing to do for Mrs. Swindells."

Mike Kaika, the Gallaudet's director of media relations, for Gallaudet, said the school has no plans to appeal the ruling, adding, "We've got our $3 million. We're not going to complain."

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