With new will, writs fly

Lawsuit: With the help of a Baltimore law firm, a Florida man changed his deed of trust, and Dickinson College has gone to court.

March 08, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

When wealthy people change their wills, feathers get ruffled and writs can fly.

Witness the case of Robert A. Waidner. The former chief executive officer of Standard Fusee Corp. gave millions while he was alive to Dickinson College, his alma mater. The small liberal arts school in Carlisle, Pa., gratefully named a library and its admissions building for him.

Seven years ago, the Riderwood resident designated the college as the recipient of the bulk of his fortune -- estimated at $20 million to $25 million -- once he and his wife, Elizabeth, had died.

But soon after his death two years ago at age 89, college officials were stunned to learn that Waidner had changed his original deed of trust, eliminating the bequest to Dickinson and setting up a permanent foundation to make much smaller donations to various causes, including the school.

Dickinson has gone to court, accusing two Baltimore lawyers of persuading an elderly man with a failing memory to alter his plans in a way that could benefit the lawyers and two nonprofit institutions they are associated with, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

The lawsuit was filed last month in Palm Beach County, Fla., where the Waidners maintained a residence. It contends that John H. Somerville and Robert Sloan, attorneys with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, one of Baltimore's largest law firms, exercised "undue influence" over the wealthy businessman and philanthropist.

"The whole thing, it's just too bad," says Elizabeth Waidner, 83, who will receive living expenses from the trust for the rest of her life no matter how the lawsuit comes out. "So many people knew what his intentions were, because he always talked about Dickinson."

Somerville and Sloan have declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Ward B. Coe III, a managing partner of the firm, denies the college's allegations and says Dickinson's "overly aggressive solicitation" of Waidner for gifts had prompted him to change his trust four years before his death.

"It's surprising an institution or its lawyers could go to such lengths to attempt to deprive other legitimate charities of Mr. Waidner's generosity," Coe says. He notes that a Florida court twice dismissed an earlier lawsuit by the college challenging the trust and its management.

Although disputes over lawyers' handling of large estates rarely get this much public attention, legal experts say there could be more cases like this in the future. "With an increasingly elderly and mobile population, where people leave Maryland or New York and go to Florida, there have been more of these kinds of cases," says Paula Monopoli, a visiting scholar at University of Maryland School of Law.

The number of Marylanders older than of 60 is expected to grow by 77 percent in the next 20 years, mirroring a nationwide trend.

"Lawyers take on an increasingly important role to these people, because there isn't any close family," says Monopoli, who teaches estate planning.

"It is an increasing problem," she adds, because trillions of dollars are being left in wills as the World War II generation dies off.

Unfortunately, says Monopoli, few rules exist for lawyers in what amounts to an ethical minefield.

Maryland's rules of professional conduct prohibit lawyers from writing wills that include themselves as beneficiaries, says Melvin Hirshman, state bar counsel, but beyond that it's largely up to the judgment of lawyers to determine what is proper.

"We need more guidelines," Monopoli says.

For Dickinson College, the issue is more than academic. Founded in 1783, the 2,000-student school ranks among the best liberal arts colleges in the country.

Campus officials have been pressing to boost Dickinson's $172 million endowment, which they say lags behind those of competitors. In nearby Lancaster, 1,870-student Franklin & Marshall College has $308 million to help pay for scholarships, new buildings and salaries.

Waidner's bequest, if the college wins, would be one of the biggest the school has received.

"There's a lot of pressure on these schools, fund-raising-wise," says Michael Hodes, a Baltimore lawyer who handles estate planning. "It'd be a home run for that school. I can't blame them for fighting."

Waidner, who owned the nation's largest manufacturer of signal flares until the early 1990s, attended Dickinson on a scholarship. He repaid the favor many times over after his graduation in 1932. He was on the board of trustees for about 50 years, and helped run a society that provided scholarships at the school.

School officials will say only that Waidner gave millions to Dickinson. Besides naming the two buildings for him, they hung his portrait in the new library.

Up to the end, the college was one of the great loves of his life," says Holly R. Skolnick, the college's Florida lawyer.

Waidner signed a deed of trust in 1994 directing that Dickinson receive the remainder of his wealth after his wife no longer needed income from the trust.

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