As Maggie Smith’s imperious Dowager Duchess said on a recent episode of “Downton Abbey,” “No family is ever what it seems from the outside.” And so it is with the Princeton family that inherited the McGraw-Hill fortune. Like every family it has had its arguments, ranging from messy divorces to sibling spats about “mom loved you more than me” that are usually resolved over the kitchen table. When large sums of money are involved, it can end up in court.
Lawyers for the children and grandchildren of 86-year-old Lisa McGraw Webster — heiress to a good share of the McGraw-Hill publishing fortune — are filing claims and counter claims in Somerset County Superior Court. Her 1993 divorce case resulted in a significant decision allowing her to keep 90 percent of her $125 million fortune. In this case, potentially precedent-setting, her son Curtis McGraw Webster says that his two half sisters have wrongly taken charge of their ailing mother, described as “an alleged incapacitated person,” and moved her away from Princeton to her vacation home in Idaho at the cost of her health and happiness to get better access to her $25 million fortune. The sisters say, in depositions submitted January 18, that they are following their mother’s wishes. The case involves some well-known Princeton people: Molly Sword McDonough, Charles and Alice Fetter, and members of the Olympic ice skating community, generously supported by Webster. Nearly a dozen lawyers in three states are involved.
The Webster case illustrates some of the issues in New Jersey’s new “granny snatching law,” which aims to help “an alleged incapacitated person” live according to his or her wishes. It’s a dilemma even for those who are not millionaires. (See sidebar on a case filed in Mercer County Superior Court). The challenge is how to arrange your affairs so that your children will respect your wishes when they are in charge.
New Jersey’s granny snatching law, the New Jersey Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act, took effect in December. Modeled after the child kidnapping law, which eases the legal burden to sue a parent for wrongly taking the child out of state, the law seeks to protect elders who are not in full command of their mental facilities. If they have dementia or Alzheimer’s they are, like children, very suggestible. If removed to another state, they might be persuaded to change their power of attorney, and the original holder of the power of attorney would have to institute legal proceedings in the new state. Had the new law been in effect at the time his mother was taken to Idaho, Curtis Webster would have had a straightforward means of establishing jurisdiction in New Jersey, even though she was physically in Idaho.
“This matter illustrates the risks that some families face when an elderly person of relative substantial wealth becomes ‘snatched’ by one faction of the family,” says Roger Martindell, Curtis Webster’s attorney.
Curtis Webster and his mother were close. Mother and son were in constant contact. He lived with her for several years when his daughter was young. For decades he called daily from his home in New York City, visited regularly, accompanied her to ice skating events, and was her attorney-in-fact under her power of attorney. In November, 2010, when Lisa Webster developed a serious medical condition, Curtis brought her from her vacation home back to Princeton for surgery and then back to Idaho.
At that point, according to Curtis Webster’s deposition, family traditions suddenly changed. His half-sister Lisette Edmond announced that she and her family would spend Christmas with Lisa Webster in Idaho — something that happened “only a handful of times in the previous 30 years.” Next, Lisette’s daughters — who had never traveled to a skating competition before — announced they would join Lisa and Curtis at the Nationals competition in North Carolina.
Afterward Lisette and three of her four children came to stay with their grandmother in Princeton — also a rare event, according to the son’s deposition.
Concerned about Lisette’s sudden interest in figure skating and Princeton, Curtis returned to Princeton to talk to her and his mother. His key did not work in the door. The locks had been changed. When he banged on the door to gain entrance, the police were called.
Within two weeks, his half sisters Lisette Edmond and Marian Paen removed him as attorney-in-fact under their mother’s power of attorney in favor of themselves. When their mother went for her usual vacation to her Ketchum, Idaho home, they established her as a permanent resident. In Idaho, Stowe Tattersall was given general power of attorney. A Lawrenceville resident who recently retired as an executive with Deutsche Bank, he has known the family for many years and is, in fact, Lisa Webster’s godson. He is now one of the names on her living will, co-trustee of the largest trust and three new trusts, co-executor of her will, and limited guardian for determining travel plans.
Curtis Webster has not been allowed to have a visit or a substantive conversation with his mother for two years. Also banned from contact is his daughter, Theo McGraw Webster. She says, in court papers: “I am incredibly frightened that time is running out. I desperately want to see her while she can still recognize and respond to me. I want the blackmail and the threats and the anxiety and the tension to stop. More than anything I want Granny to find some peace and joy in her last years and for her to know how much I love her and want her happiness.”
At this point Curtis Webster claims he was given a chance to see his mother, but at an unacceptable price. The sisters, according to depositions, wanted to immediately add their two children, Elizabeth Edmond and Alex Paen as voting members of the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation — or to split the foundation into three parts. Currently the $20 million family foundation gives away $1 million each year, including more than $300,000 annually to 55 Princeton-based charities (see sidebar, page 34).
The separation, Curtis Webster says in a telephone interview, is painful. “Emotionally it has been incredibly difficult, just awful. The pain is not subsiding.” It could all be fixed with a simple person-to-person conversation, he believes. “I am convinced that if I saw my mother it would melt her heart. All I need to do is see my mother and this would change.”
Curtis Webster says that retaliating against him by refusing to let him see his mother, or to let his daughter see his grandmother “is extortion.” But he continues to insist that his niece and nephew cannot immediately join the foundation board as voting members. His daughter Theo served an internship, and he wants them to do the same. The great-grandson of the man who accumulated the wealth, James H. McGraw, refuses to immediately relinquish control over the family’s philanthropic activities. Nor does he does want the foundation to be split. He also alleges that his sister started to want to take care of her mother only when the value of her family’s real estate projects plummeted.
According to Curtis Webster’s deposition, he believes that the finances of the Edmond household were in “a very dire financial state by the end of 2010.” His brother-in-law Doug and his niece Elizabeth were in the real estate business in California, where real estate values dropped. The household also included, the deposition says, “their daughter Alexandra (who is unemployed) and their son Nicholas (who was unemployed or employed part-time). On information and belief, the Edmonds decided to forcibly remove EMW [Elizabeth McGraw Webster] so as to exert total financial control over her and use her resources for, and divert her assets to, their own real estate and other ventures.”
Curtis McGraw petitioned the court in Idaho to appoint a neutral overall guardian, a “guardian at litem,” an independent third party experienced in these matters who would serve as the “eyes and ears” of the court, conduct an investigation, and then report back to the court. The petition was rejected. A social worker, appointed as court visitor, determined that though Lisa Webster had a weak executive function (needed for initiating and planning) she was competent to make decisions for herself.
Through her Idaho attorney, Stephen Pruss, Lisa Webster denies any abuse. The document states that she is aware “that accusations have been made by her son, his daughter, his wife, and a high school classmate of his that Petitioner is being held ‘hostage’ in Idaho, is being subject to ‘elder abuse’ and is not being allowed to travel or talk to some members of her family or friends, but Petitioner finds such allegations to be ridiculous.”
Curtis McGraw continues to pursue the case in New Jersey, saying he wants to find out what his mother truly wants and how she is being treated. He is concerned for her mental and physical health. Based on the reports of family friends who have visited her, and on the analysis of elder care experts, he believes she has been influenced by his sisters.
Charles and Alice Fetter, longtime friends and skating enthusiasts, spent time in the Webster household in Idaho in August and November of 2012. Alice M. Fetter, who is a geriatric care manager, said in a deposition, “I do not believe Elizabeth (Lisa) has any mental ability to understand the import of any legal documents she is given to sign. In addition, the family members around Lisa have put her in a delusional state of paranoia.” And Fetter notes that the grandson, Nicholas, walks around the house “wearing and showing off two pistols.” Fetter heard Lisa say that she fears Curtis will kidnap her if she returns to Princeton. “I have heard Elizabeth and Alexandra threaten Lisa with abandonment if she communicates with Curtis.”
A psychiatry professor who was commissioned by Curtis Webster’s Idaho attorney to study the case, J. Edward Spar at UCLA, writes, “The cognitive impairment of the kind and degree that Mrs. Webster appears to suffer would seriously impair her ability to weigh and evaluate the claims of others, particularly others upon whom she felt dependent. It would be relatively easy to convince Mrs. Webster that Curtis’s intentions are far more malevolent than they actually are. (In that case) it would be in the interests of the influencers to make sure that Curtis does not get a chance to correct his mother’s distorted conceptions of his intentions.”
In papers filed in Somerset on December 18, Curtis Webster’s local counsel, Martindell and Eden Quainton, ask the court to appoint a neutral “guardian ad litem” to investigate and make sure that Lisa Webster is not a victim of granny snatching. They also ask the court to appoint Curtis Webster as a special guardian for medical purposes and travel arrangements. As such he would also have access to her financial statements, confirming that she is not financially exploited, and that she gets the medical attention she needs.
He fears for her health. A new do-not-resuscitate sign has been placed in her room. She has insulin-dependent diabetes, has gone into diabetic comas, and reportedly gives herself insulin injections. She also has Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma, and she has had esophageal diverticulum and a mini-stroke. In Princeton, her care was under the supervision of professionals at Senior Care Management, and her son wants similar oversight. Her son notes that she does not have the specialists that she had in Princeton, where she was followed by a neurologist, a diabetes specialist, a cardiologist, an orthopedic surgeon, and a special dentist. In Idaho she has health aides, reportedly sees an internist, and has visits from a wound care nurse and a physical therapist.
Curtis Webster also wants Tattersall removed from his mother’s financial affairs. In a deposition, Curtis claims, “Tattersall has accumulated almost total power over my mother and her estate, which he has exercised in furtherance of his own personal enrichment.” He also claims a conflict of interest, that Tattersall acts as the agent for Doug Edmond (spouse of Lisette) on real estate matters, including negotiations on a joint venture, a Colorado ranch that is a significant asset to his mother’s estate.
But Lisa Webster is on record as supporting Tattersall. In a deposition on January 17, she states: “While I am partially physically disabled by reason of lack of mobility, I do not lack the mental capacity to make medical, financial, or estate planning decisions for myself, and do not wish for Curtis to be involved in making medical, financial, or estate planning decisions on my behalf. I do not believe that Mr. Tattersall has engaged in any improper transactions and/or otherwise improperly compensated himself.”
Tattersall declined to be interviewed, but in a deposition on January 15 he stated: “At no time since my appointment have I undertaken actions which were detrimental to EMW or for my own personal enrichment. Furthermore, I have properly fulfilled my role as a limited guardian as appointed by the Court. I have also not seen any evidence that the Edmond family is pillaging or plundering the assets of EMW. Instead, all economic transactions are reviewed and overseen by the Rockefeller Trust Company.”
Bradley L. Mitchell of Stevens & Lee represents Lisa Webster, Lisette Edmond, and her daughter Elizabeth Edmond. He declined to comment for this article. If he prevails, Tattersall will be retained. The social worker for the court in Idaho reported that Lisa Webster “has made a series of decisions to remove Curtis Webster from positions of authority in her affairs. In my opinion, the appointment of Stowe Tattersall as limited guardian does indeed preserve her well being and support her wishes.”
Elizabeth L. Edmond, daughter of Lisette and Doug Edmond, said in a deposition filed on January 18, “The picture painted is dishonest and insulting to Granny, Stowe (Tattersall), and my family. The fact is that it is Curtis, not those he complains of, who has caused Granny great unrest and unhappiness over the last several years. This action is a continuation of that pattern and his unwarranted attack on those who are actually caring for Granny should be flatly rejected by this Court.”
The son alleges that his sisters have manipulated their mother’s feelings. The sisters insist that, because of an argument the son had with his mother, she is afraid to see him.
Though this may seem like just a family spat, “make no mistake,” said Curtis McGraw’s Idaho lawyer, Edward Simon, “this case is about money and control. It should be more about protecting Lisa Webster’s estate from dissipation.” At age 28 she had $300 million in annual income. In 1993 after her divorce she was worth about $100 million, but it has dropped to $25 million. At one point the cash drain was so bad that there was a possibility that she would be out of money in three years.
More could have been done to preserve the corpus, according to Curtis Webster. He says his motives are not monetary. “I received wealth,” he says, “and what I did receive I have been frugal with. Such that, at this point, the big subject for me here is not money, it is my mother.”
He was and is concerned about the cash drain. He says his mother would never use the foundation to try to control him. “She never controlled us with money. It’s not her M.O.,” he says. This concern instigated a quarrel that is referred to in court papers. He wanted his mother to put up for rent an empty, expensive house in Sun Valley with a driveway that was heated at the cost of $5,000 a month. Lisa Webster refused to let it be rented because her 20-year-old grandson sometimes stayed there. She refused to discuss it, and a quarrel ensued. Disagreements over other expenses, bequests, and trusts are detailed in court papers.
Lisa Webster, Elizabeth Edmond said in a deposition, felt her son was controlling. “Granny told us that Curtis was totally controlling her and her finances and was not keeping her apprised of what he was doing in that regard. Granny advised us at that time that she wanted to remove Curtis as her power of attorney, wanted to know what was going on with her money and wanted all of her children to have access to her financials. Granny subsequently became very concerned that Curtis was going to do something to her in an effort to stop from making these changes. She first directed that all of the drapes in the house remain closed.”
“Right now Lisa Webster is going to take control of her own life,” said Stephen L. Pruss, attorney for Lisa Webster in Idaho court. “Her son is trying to restrict her control, and he wants to tell her how she’s got to live her life by subjecting her to a greater level of guardianship than she needs.”
Several people say, in court papers, that Lisa Webster is averse to any conflict, but her family has had plenty of it. When she divorced her husband of 37 years, his attorney, Gerald Skey, said “I have never in my 20-odd years of practice seen the degree of anger and bitterness that is totally unwarranted.”
She was also known to be easily influenced, even as a younger woman. For instance, the 1993 divorce that left her husband with less than 10 percent of the estate was based, in part, on allegations that she was malleable.
Elizabeth “Lisa” McGraw Webster lived in two worlds, the comfortable world of Princeton, meeting friends for lunch at the Nassau Club, and the exciting world of the international figure skating community. She has close and warm ties to both.
She grew up on Hodge Road, the only child of Curtis and Elizabeth McGraw. She came into her inheritance at age 28 when her father died unexpectedly. Her grandfather, James H. McGraw, co-founder in 1888 with John Hill of the publishing house McGraw-Hill, had established an irrevocable trust for his four sons. He co-founded what is now known as the Princeton Healthcare Center, and his name is on the laboratory door.
She began to figure skate when she was six years old. As an adult, one of her chief pleasures would be to financially assist promising young skaters, attend their competitions, and have world-famous skaters visit with her in her ring-side box.
After boarding school and a two-year college, she worked for a couple of years in New York, then married James Stoltzfus, the son of a missionary educator who became president and owner of Funk & Wagnalls Corporation. They had two daughters, Lisette in 1950 and Marian in 1952. (Stoltzfus died in 2010 at the age of 84.)
In 1953, at the unexpected death of her father, she began to receive $300,000 annually from the trust. With relatives and professionals helping her manage her money, she bought a 10-acre estate. (This estate was sold last year but she retains her ranch-style home on Mountain View Road in Blawenburg.) She divorced her first husband in 1954 and married George Webster, a chemical engineer who also had two daughters. Their son, Curtis, was born in 1957.
All three children attended Princeton Day School (where the ice rink bears their mother’s name) and went away to boarding school, the daughters to Arizona, Curtis to the Lawrenceville School, where his grandfather and great grandfather had gone. He spent his senior year at an American school in Switzerland. After a stint as a ski instructor, he continued his education. At the University of Miami he met a woman who became pregnant with Theo shortly after they met. She divorced her husband to marry Curtis. Two years later he filed for divorce and after a long trial he won custody of Theo and raised her as a single parent. In 2005 he married Jennifer Ortega, a New York-based theater artist.
Theo grew up extremely attached to her grandmother. She went to a private school in New York and visited Princeton on weekends. After two years at Mercer County Community College, she majored in Latin and ancient Greek at Rutgers and earned her graduate degree in Latin at Columbia.
In the 1980s Curtis worked at Clancy Paul at Princeton Shopping Center. He also studied music and trained himself as a programmer, production sound mixer, and audio archivist with a specialty in ambient electronic music. From his studio in New York he worked on corporate jingles and rap music. Later he produced a touring band, rapper Princess Superstar, and had success touring in Europe and the UK. He sponsored the Blue Curtain productions of outdoor music at Pettoranello Gardens in Princeton.
Curtis was the youngest child, six years younger than the oldest, Lisette. In 1975 Lisette married Doug Edmond, and they have three daughters (Elizabeth, Victoria, and Alexandra) and a son (Nicholas). The other sister, Marian, married Tony Paen and they have two children, Alex and Sasha.
Curtis Webster’s father, George Webster, had given up a promising corporate career to devote himself to managing his wife’s money. He had numerous hobbies, sat on various boards, and set up the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation. The marriage deteriorated. In 1989 with the encouragement of all three of her children, Lisa Webster filed for divorce. She emerged in 1993 with 90 percent of her estate, an unexpectedly generous division of wealth, given that her estate had grown from $1 million to $125 million under her husband’s care. (U.S. 1, May 19, 1993). George Webster never spoke to his son again and died in 2002.
After the divorce, Lisa began to spend — to build what she wanted, decorate how she wanted, and go where she wanted in a private plane. She pursued her passion for ice dancing and began to support Olympic skaters, not only with money, but with personal energy — staging seminars, holding parties, and attending competitions. When she grew older, her son would begin to accompany her to major skating events.
“I observed first hand the joy that these events brought to her,” Curtis Webster said in a deposition. “My mother would rent an arena box that became a meeting point for some of the best-known skaters in the world, such as Dorothy Hamill, Dick Button, and Brian Boitano, and many of whom, including such stars as Nancy Kerrigan, Paul Wylie, Steven Cousins, Megan Wing, Aaron Lowe, and David Liu, had also been recipients of my mother’s generosity. The atmosphere was magical.”
In court documents, former star and current sports commentator Dick Button attests to the value of this support, both to the skaters themselves and to the well-being of the donor. “Given Lisa’s declining health over the last decade,” he said, “I think it is fair to say that without Curtis’ devotion to his mother these gatherings would most likely never have taken place. It was evident to me that Lisa loved socializing with all her many friends in the skating community; it was also evident how much the skaters themselves loved Lisa, her energy, passion, and warmth.”
While George and Lisa were married, they had made gifts of the tax-free maximum to each of the children and grandchildren, currently $13,000 from each parent, $26,000 total. After the divorce, the children and grandchildren continued to receive the annual gift from their mother. How the children and grandchildren invested and/or spent these monies, and who asked for more, was and is a contentious subject, according to Curtis Webster.
Lisette and her husband engaged in various real estate development projects in California. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, also made real estate investments, according to Curtis Webster’s complaint. It was when the California real estate market took a downturn, Curtis Webster alleges, that they began to take an interest in joining the family foundation board and in moving Lisa Webster out of Princeton, to Idaho, under the care of Lisette’s daughters.
Establishing his mother’s legal residence in Idaho had always been an option, says Curtis Webster, because it would save at least $4 million annually. Many wealthy families flee to escape New Jersey’s income tax. But Lisa always rejected the idea because it did not fit her self image. She was just too attached to Princeton.
“You could tell her intellectually what it is for and why, but if she were questioned directly by tax authorities, she would say I’m from Princeton. We just couldn’t risk it. Financially it just wasn’t worth it,” he says. “She was adamant. Her nostalgia and closeness to the area made it difficult to change.” So though each year the move was considered, it was rejected when her son and long-time attorney, Sam Lambert of Drinker Biddle & Reath, were in charge.
According to Alice Fetter, in a December 7, 2012, deposition, “Lisette and Alexandra and Elizabeth have told me they don’t like Princeton and they don’t feel safe in Princeton. Lisa tells me very specific things about what she misses about what she refers to as ‘home’ in Princeton; she loves the spring because of the lilacs in her garden; she loves the fall because all her friends are back from their summer vacations; and she loves going to the Nassau Club and seeing her friends. She is being kept isolated in Sun Valley where friends cannot reach her or see her.”
Ensconced in Ketchum, part of Sun Valley, Idaho, she gets her hair and nails done, receives some visitors, occasionally eats out, and watches television. Lisette’s daughter, Elizabeth Edmond, oversees most of the care but alternates with her sister, Alexandra Edmond.
She was visited by Molly Sword McDonough, the daughter of William Sword, a long-time family friend who founded the well-known Princeton wealth management firm. She said, in a deposition, “The Mrs. Webster that I saw on October 17, 2011, was not the engaged and vigorous woman that I have known, but a diminished version of the woman that I have known for my entire life. It appeared that she was being isolated by her granddaughter.” McDonough was so concerned that she reported the situation to the Ketchum, Idaho, police department.
According to court documents, if Lisa Webster comes to Princeton, she has armed bodyguards to protect her from her son. She did travel last year. She went to the McGraw-Hill annual meeting and to the major figure skating competitions — Nationals in San Jose, California, and Worlds in Nice, France. Whether she will have enough funds to make those trips in 2013 is under discussion.
All the difficulties would supposedly be resolved if Curtis Webster and his daughter Theo would accede to the foundation-changing demands.
But Curtis Webster is proud of what the foundation accomplishes; it seems to play a major role in his self image. “We work with 140 different groups annually and have been able to give away close to $1 million a year for the past 10 years. We do a lot of great things with that foundation,” he says, citing the large grant ($500,000 over a five-year period) to the Princeton hospital. He speaks of monies given to a charity, Assisting Children in Need, to work with stigmatized children, such as group homes in Romania for children with HIV and albinos in Africa.
“We are looking at trading the foundation out for whatever we may or may not receive from my mother’s estate,” he says. “Do I make a decision for my own personal financial gain or the public good?”
Dick Button, the former skating star, said in a deposition on January 7: “I was deeply saddened to learn that Theo has not been able to see her grandmother in over 20 months. I believe that cutting Theo off in this fashion is not only hurtful to Theo but also cruel to Lisa. I am providing this affidavit in the hopes that the voice of a friend who truly cares for Lisa and wants what is best for her may help put an end to the alarming situation in which she is now being maintained.”
Rachel Brannon, a social worker commissioned by the Idaho court to write a 16-page report, closed with this statement: “It is no wonder that Curtis is concerned and dismayed by his mother’s sudden withdrawal from her relationship with him in January 2011, and the subsequent revocation of his roles as general power of attorney, health care power of attorney, and co-trustee. Lisa has never had a substantial conversation with him to explain how she felt, and why. She was, it seems, too afraid to do so, and, out of concern her daughters have adopted a defensive posture towards him.”
The current litigation, says the social worker, “is adding even more strain on a relationship that both Lisa and Curtis say they want to repair. This is an unfortunate problem that is not likely to resolve quickly or easily.”
It’s every family’s dilemma: What to do with Granny in her fading years. Should she go to a nursing home or have at-home care. Should she stay in her home town, or move to another town to be closer to grandchildren. Who decides?
In the best case scenario, someone thinks to ask Granny these questions before the need arises, and her preferences get written down and then followed. All too often, only after Granny has a stroke or descends into dementia , are these questions addressed. Emotional dramas get played out between the stakeholders.
When old rivalries emerge, escalating into animosity, the controversy could end up in court. Especially when Grandma is quite wealthy. Especially when one sibling whisks Grandma away so that she has little or no contact with the wider family.
Lisa Webster’s dilemma can be a lesson to all of us. Plan. Ask the hard questions before the need arises. Go beyond the first answer (most elders will choose to stay at home) and get into the “What If” answers. One way to sort out your values is to play the Go Wish game, published by Coda Alliance and available online at www.codaalliance.org.
Nobody can predict what will actually happen. Even if your first, second, and third choices are written down, end of life issues don’t always work out as planned. “It can be really hard to plan in your 70s,” says Curtis Webster’s attorney Eden Quainton, “for what greedy children may try to do to you in your 80s.”