The body of 96-year-old Joy McCann Culverhouse, widow of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse Sr., still lies in a Tampa funeral home more than three months after her death as the battle over her estate grows increasing contentious.
Claiming she was pressured by "charlatans,'' her two children are now trying to revoke her will and set aside a trust she created that could be worth as much as $40 million. The stakes are huge but the scenario is surprisingly common.
From the famous to the obscure, a person's death often leads to bitter fights over who should get the money, the house, even grandpa's old hat.
"You'll see families go at it like there's no tomorrow,'' said Daniel A. Alvarez, a Tampa attorney who specializes in wills and trusts. "There's a lot of money here (in the Culverhouse case) but I've seen families fight over the silliest things.''
Circuit Court Judge Linda Allan, who hears probate cases in Pinellas County, says much of her time on the bench is spent resolving arguments over burials, personal property and, of course, money.
"I'm sure there are thousands of folks who amicably resolve their cases, but certainly it is common in this division for there to be those disputes,'' she said.
In a petition filed this month in Hillsborough County probate court, Hugh Culverhouse Jr. and Gay Culverhouse seek to revoke their mother's will on the grounds that her grandson and two other men took financial advantage of a wealthy woman in her dotage. The petition adds new details to earlier claims that Culverhouse was incompetent to handle her affairs because of a history of alcohol abuse that caused brain-damaging falls — including one when she passed out and two elevator doors slammed on her head.
As Culverhouse deteriorated, the petition says, lawyer Robert Waltuch and accountant Scott Lynch cut her off from her children and "manipulated'' her into making grandson Christopher Chapman her heir while they took large personal loans, "outrageous'' salaries and steered her into risky investments with "disastrous consequences.''
"This latest motion from Hugh Jr. is just one side of the case, and it is filled with unsubstantiated allegations," said Eric Adams, an attorney representing the Culverhouse estate, in a statement. "We will address the substance of these allegations at the appropriate time and in the appropriate venue, which is in the courts. Overall, this is a disappointing dynamic. Joy took so much time and paid careful attention to structure her estate the way she did, and for very good reason; she clearly trusted her grandson Christopher more than her son Hugh Jr. It is unfortunate that, now that she has passed and not able to defend herself, Hugh Jr. is trying to unwind all of her work, apparently for his own benefit. Our singular goal is to fulfill the wishes of Mrs. Culverhouse."
Though the battle over Culverhouse's estate is shaping up as a long one, it is by no means unusual. The rich often live on in the headlines well past their deaths as survivors wrestle in court.
The widow and children of singer James Brown — the "Godfather of Soul'' who died in 2006 — weren't happy that he left the bulk of his $50 million estate to charities helping disadvantaged youths. South Carolina's Attorney General helped broker a settlement that would have given the widow and children half of the money with the rest going to charity. But the state's highest court ruled that the deal as was unfair, and the case remains unresolved.
Remember Anna Nicole Smith, the Playboy Playmate of the Year who married an oil baron 63 years her senior? When J. Howard Marshall II died, leaving $1.6 billion to one of his sons, Smith teamed up with the other one to claim half of the estate. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which did not award Smith any money but affirmed her right to pursue a share of the estate in federal court instead of state probate court.
Smith and the favored son both died soon after the ruling, and the case is still dragging on.
Among the more unusual probate battles were those over hotelier Leona Helmsley's $12 million bequest to her pet Maltese, Trouble. (The dog eventually got $2 million); and a will that purportedly left $156 million to a Nevada gas station owner who gave reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes a ride when he was stranded in the desert. (The man lost out).
Most fights, however, involve those who were neither famous nor particularly well off.
As a probate judge, Allan often sees cases in which sibling rivalries and other emotions spur survivors into battle mode even when the monetary stakes are relatively small.
"It isn't uncommon at the end of the road for the attorney fees that folks paid to involve themselves in a dispute to exceed the amount in controversy,'' Allan said.
Alvarez, the Tampa lawyer, recalls the case of one set of relatives battling another over an old car in which the engine didn't work.
"To them it was about the principle — they felt that the brother that was in control of Mom had ripped them off so that even though the car was worth less than they were paying per hour to fight for it, they were going to hurt that guy,'' he said. "They ended up with very little and the family destroyed.''
Although Joy Culverhouse's estate is worth millions, the challenge to her will is based on a similar issue: Did those close to her — including her grandson, who is Gay Culverhouse's son — exert undue influence over her?
That could be hard to prove, Alvarez says.
"The challenges are pretty significant and it's really a mater of time and the burden of evidence is on the challengers as it is in every one of these cases,'' he said. "What they are trying to show is that Mom was not of her sound mind when she was making these decisions. It's easy to do from this side of the grave because Mom is not there to push back.''
Alvarez said age alone is not proof that a now-deceased relative was incompetent when he or she made a will: "I go to breakfast with 88- to 94-year- olds and those guys are 10 times smarter than I am.''
Proving "undue influence'' can also be tough.
"I'm not passing judgment on what happened in this family,'' Alvarez said of the Culverhouse clan, "but when she was alive, why did she not want to see her children? They can argue that maybe she was being coerced but that is a heavy burden. Lawyers don't do things without permission. A lawyer has an ethical duty to follow his client's order.''
In their petition, however, Culverhouse's children say their mother's trusting nature, alcohol abuse and diminished understanding of financial matters made her "highly susceptible'' to manipulation by Waltuch, her attorney and now the personal representative of her estate.
"Mrs. Culverhouse had no understanding of how (grandson) Chapman and her supposedly loyal professionals were gaining control of her assets,'' the petition says. "She informed her staff that she was so overwhelmed by the number of documents that Waltuch, Chapman and Lynch asked her to sign that she did not attempt to read them.''
("It was well known,'' the petition adds, "that the best time to raise financial issues with Mrs. Culverhouse was during or after cocktail hour.'')
Waltuch and Chapman forced Culverhouse's employees to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibited them from speaking to any of her relatives except Chapman, the petition says. After the rest of the family was cut off, she signed a durable power of attorney that gave her grandson "unfettered control'' over her assets and enabled him to "reward'' Waltuch, Lynch and others, it says.
Culverhouse's children want Waltuch removed as personal representative of her estate, partly because he obtained two loans from a mortgage company funded by Culverhouse's assets while he was her attorney. (The first loan, for $650,000, was paid back, records show.)
"Waltuch holds conflicting and adverse interests against the estate that will interfere with the administration of the estate as a whole,'' the petition says.
Before her death, Culverhouse created a trust with Waltuch, her grandson and her accountant as co-trustees. Hugh Culverhouse Jr. estimates it is worth $30- to $40-millon.
What would he and his sister do with the money if the will is revoked and the trust set aside?
"What funds I receive will be donated 100 percent to charities,'' said Hugh Culverhouse Jr., described in the petition as a "successful attorney, real estate developer and investor'' who already has made several large endowments.
The petition calls Gay Culverhouse, a former college president and Bucs' president, a "recognized expert'' on traumatic brain injuries. She said she would set up college funds for her six grandchildren and donate to universities and medical schools doing research on brain damage to young athletes.
The siblings, both in their 60s, initially said they would not give permission for their mother to be buried until an autopsy was performed and they had access to her medical records, doctors and nurses. Hugh Culverhouse Jr. said they offered to forego those conditions if her brain was removed and examined.
"We also offered to make her brain available for their doctor to examine,'' he said in an email. "Both sides would have equal access. They refused. So ,we are back where we began.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate