The allegations of undue influence involving McGraw-Hill heiress Lisa Webster may seem far removed from the problems of most workaday people. Webster’s fortune, after all, is estimated to be worth more than $25 million, and both sides in the case have the resources to hire numerous attorneys and other specialists (the court-appointed social worker who visited the elderly Webster to determine her competency charged $100 an hour for her time).
But the conflict is not so different from those faced by people of ordinary means. In a case currently being heard in Mercer County Court, a Hamilton woman has asked for a protective order for her mother, whose finances, the daughter alleges, are being dissipated by her older brother.
Cecelia Milacci is the 87-year-old widow of Frank A. ‘Duke’ Milacci, who died last April at the age of 86. The Trenton-born Milacci lived most of his life in the Chambersburg section, where he owned and operated the Living Room Restaurant for many years until 1968. According to a complaint filed by their daughter, Margaret Milacci, the Milaccis had relied on their daughter for important caregiving functions for much of her adult life. The daughter, now 62, lived with her parents until about 15 years ago. After moving out, she continued daily visits.
According to the complaint Margaret’s brother, 63-year-old Louis Milacci, who until recently worked as a car salesman, was the beneficiary of “tens of thousands of dollars” in loans from his father over the years. Despite this, the complaint states, the brother did not assist her in the care of their parents. On her father’s last birthday, in November, 2011, the brother and his family did not visit or call.
But the next month the family dynamic changed. The father “made up” with the son and a few months later the son announced that their father was dying, that he had power of attorney, and that “mom is coming to live with me and that’s that,” according to the complaint. Soon thereafter the daughter discovered that the parents’ wills, signed in 2005 and giving the daughter 75 percent of the estates, were missing. The brother moved into the parents’ home and denied the sister visits or telephone calls to her parents.
After the father died, the complaint continues, the son arranged for the mother to move in with him, blocked the daughter’s phone number from his phone, cashed a CD worth $200,000 at Roma Bank, had his mother change her will, and sold the parents’ home, even though the daughter claims that the title had been transferred to her many years before and that her parents retained a life estate to live there.
Now the case is in court. The attorney for the brother, William Hartigan of McLaughlin & Cooper in Trenton, did not respond to a call seeking comment. While the siblings’ attorneys wrangle over a possible resolution, the judge has appointed Anthony Serra of the Pennington-based law firm, Serra Weiss, to oversee the estate.
Could the Milacci parents have devised a plan a decade ago, when they were in better health, to dictate how their estate would be divided between their children? Possibly. And many people think they do by appointing a child to take control. The trouble is that the child may later end up with a conflicting interest after the parent has become incompetent or died.
While not referring specifically to the Milacci case, Serra, whose firm specializes in guardianship issues, says that if possible parents should try to reconcile differences with and among children while they are competent to do so. In addition parents may want to consider establishing a court-appointed conservator rather than a guardian to oversee their affairs later. The choice can be changed later, but only by going to court. That in itself usually discourages opportunistic family members.