ST. PETERSBURG — Jack S. Carey was a successful lawyer and former City Council member whose philanthropic activities earned him much respect.
But Carey's solid reputation is now in jeopardy after a judge decided recently that he inappropriately persuaded an elderly client to will him and his legal assistant more than $7-million of her estate.
Virginia Murphy retained Carey as her lawyer for almost 25 years. She suffered from several frailties in her later years, including senile dementia, cataracts, hearing loss, depression, hypertension and heart problems. She died in 2006 at the age of 107.
While in her 90s, Murphy executed a new will six times. Each time, Carey and his assistant, Gloria DuBois, were named as beneficiaries.
After Murphy's death, her second cousin protested the will.
In an Aug. 1 ruling, Pinellas Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin wrote that she had never seen a case in which it was so apparent that someone had unduly influenced another person during the execution of a will.
"The court must acknowledge that Mr. Carey has had an exemplary career in the legal profession. He enjoys a solid reputation as an honest professional and a civic-minded citizen of great integrity," Laughlin wrote. "For this reason, deciding the facts and issues in this case has been especially painful and troubling."
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If there is one thing everyone in this case agrees on, it is that Murphy was sweet and kind.
She was born in 1899; her family moved to St. Petersburg when she was 3. She studied music in Cincinnati and Chicago, where she met her first husband, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Northwestern University Medical School. He died in 1951.
Murphy returned to St. Petersburg in the 1960s. She married a pediatrician who died in 1972. She had no children.
Murphy retained attorney Cy Harrison, with whom she had attended high school, to oversee her legal affairs. Harrison was a partner in a law firm with Jack Carey. Harrison died in 1983 and Carey, with assistance from DuBois, took over Murphy's affairs. Murphy was 84.
Carey had a terrific reputation.
His father was C. Irving Carey, a lawyer and former member of the state Legislature who was so respected that people called him "Judge."
Jack Carey, who was an FBI agent before practicing law, launched his own political career in 1959 when he was elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.
Carey served one term before deciding he needed more time to devote to his family and law firm.
He represented hundreds of people during his 50-year career.
But for the past 25 years, he has kept one case particularly close to him.
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Not long after Carey took over Murphy's affairs, her doctor noted her health was in decline.
In 1985, he noted that she was forgetful and easily confused. In 1987 he wrote that her "memory is horrible." Two years later, the doctor noted of Murphy: "confusion, memory diminishing."
Less than a year after Harrison died, Murphy executed a durable power of attorney designating Carey and DuBois to make medical decisions for her.
Three years later, Murphy began paying DuBois to balance her checkbook. DuBois visited Murphy at least twice a week, opened her mail and hired nurses for her.
In 1989, when she was 90, Murphy executed a will in which Carey and DuBois were to receive $50,000 each. She doubled the amount two years later, but more important, she gave them each 25 percent of her residuary estate.
A residuary estate is the amount left over after all bequests are paid out. Murphy's residual estate was worth more than $4-million at that time and was growing in value.
Carey closed his law practice in 1993 after his partner left the firm because she thought Carey's dealings with Murphy were unethical, records state.
Carey sold his practice with the exception of one client: Virginia Murphy.
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In 1994, Murphy executed her sixth will in five years. Carey was to receive $100,000 and DuBois $150,000. Each also was to get one-third of her residual estate. The other third would go to her accountant, George Tornwall.
Carey went to work for another law firm and retired in 2001. Again, he kept one client: Murphy.
Tornwall, who had served as president of two chambers of commerce as well as All Children's Hospital and the Kiwanis Club, died in 2005. His share would go to Carey and DuBois.
When Murphy died in 2006, her estate was worth close to $12-million, though its value shrunk to about $7.2-million after payment of costs, federal estate taxes and specific bequests to friends, loved ones and charitable organizations.
Murphy's second cousin, Jackie Rocke of St. Petersburg, was to receive $400,000. Another $50,000 was to go to each of her two sons.
Carey and DuBois were poised to collect more than $3.5-million each.
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In her order, Laughlin noted there is evidence that Carey and DuBois kept other people out of Murphy's financial affairs. Carey asked Murphy's bank not to contact her, but to contact him because Murphy "became flustered," the order states.
Carey also admitted in a deposition that Murphy didn't comprehend the size of her estate.
But one piece of evidence convinced the judge the most that something improper was occurring. In her order, Laughlin calls it "The Agreement."
It was signed in 2002 by Carey, DuBois and Tornwall and their spouses. It says that no breach of fiduciary duty had occurred in regard to Murphy and that "should any of the parties have a mind to upset the grand plan, they should first check with the other two parties," Laughlin wrote.
"This document wreaks of a consciousness of fraud, and the court finds it to be persuasive evidence of undue influence," Laughlin wrote. "The Agreement is also compelling evidence that the perpetrators knew all of the elements of undue influence were present."
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Rocke, Murphy's cousin, declined to comment on the case and referred questions to her lawyer, Jonathan Sbar of Tampa.
"The opinion speaks for itself," said Sbar, a law partner with Rocke's son.
DuBois said Murphy didn't suffer diminished mental health until after she turned 100, long after the last will was executed.
"She did those things on her own. She was not a weak woman," DuBois said. "She had her own mind and did what she wanted to do."
Though Rocke testified that she spent time with Murphy and was close to her, DuBois said their time together was rare. DuBois said she spent 20 years caring for Murphy while Rocke "did nothing."
"I don't care about the money," DuBois said. "It's not the money. It's that they are disgracing Mrs. Murphy and what we did for her. I'd rather that Mrs. Murphy not be depicted as a ding-a-ling or anything else. She was a very astute woman."
Carey, 82, declined to comment through his attorney, Joseph Fleece, who is appealing Laughlin's order.
"Although I respect Judge Laughlin, I think her decision was not right and did not really deal with Virginia Murphy as to what she wanted to do under her will," Fleece said.
Fleece said Murphy updated her will so many times because she was meticulous and because friends who were beneficiaries had to be removed when they died. All the wills were supervised by an outside attorney.
As for "The Agreement," Fleece said it doesn't reflect what should be most important in the case: Murphy's intent.
"Does it look good? No. Did it really matter? No. It didn't really deal with her intent," Fleece said.
Murphy's $7.2-million residuary estate remains in the hands of a curator until all appeals are exhausted.