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Lawyer in trouble over relative's estate

It made perfect sense that Eva Krause would turn to St. Petersburg lawyer Lauren A. Sill eight years ago to carry out her last wishes.

Sill's booming law practice specialized in guardianships and estates. She could draw up wills with ease. She dealt with probate judges daily. Above all, she was flesh and blood. She was Eva Krause's granddaughter.

But in all-too-common Florida fashion,Eva Krause's estate _ intended to bless her heirs _ instead brought heartache and recrimination.

Once-close daughters stopped speaking to each other. Grandchildren sued each other.

And Lauren Sill, the family lawyer, now faces a complaint before the Florida Bar about how she handled her relatives' money.

As is her practice, Sill declined to comment for this story.

Her attorney, Edward Foreman, also declined comment, saying the Krause estate is a family matter.

By general consensus, Lauren Sill is one of Pinellas County's brightest young lawyers. After graduating from Stetson University College of Law at 22, she quickly gained a reputation for taking on troublesome, unrewarding guardianship cases that more established lawyers spurned. South Pinellas social workers relied heavily on her to set up guardianships for confused, and often poor, elderly people who couldn't manage their own affairs.

Judges appoint guardians to manage a person's finances, medical care and living conditions. In theory, the guardian then picks a lawyer for legal advice. In practice, new cases usually are referred to a lawyer, who hand-picks the guardian.

As Sill's stable of guardians grew, she handled up to 500 cases at a time, more than any other attorney. With such dimension, her practice began to fray around the edges. Two guardians were caught stealing from their wards' bank accounts. Another guardian concealed the fact that she was on probation for trying to have her husband killed.

It was in that milieu that Sill took over the estate of her grandmother, Eva Krause, who died in 1985.

A widowed homemaker, Krause lived in Palm Harbor. Her original will divided her estate evenly between her daughters, Alice Sill of Clearwater and Eva Joline of Long Island, N.Y.

But a year before her death, Krause cut Eva Joline out of the will after a family argument. In the new will, Krause assigned half the inheritance to Eva Joline's young children, Christopher and Bridget.

The initial inheritance was $103,000. The Joline children would receive it in stages, beginning when they turned 25. The will designated Lauren Sill as the children's trustee. She would invest and manage her cousins' money until they were old enough to claim it.

It didn't matter much to Eva Joline that she didn't inherit any money, she said last week in an interview. She is a teacher; her husband, Robert, owns a dry-cleaning business. They are more than comfortable.

But the new will also kept her from claiming any of her parents' possessions. She couldn't pass her mother's diamond ring along to her daughter, as she had hoped. Her son would not inherit his grandfather's tools. Eva Joline said she blamed her sister, Alice.

"I couldn't have anything more to do with her, it hurt me so," Eva Joline said. "We were so very close."

Before long, bitterness over the inheritance escalated into litigation.

As Christopher Joline approached college age, his parents contacted Lauren Sill to see whether money from the Krause estate could be applied to his tuition. The will gave Sill discretion for such a payment, but she refused, saying her grandmother had given her explicit directions not to pay college expenses.

Then Robert and Eva Joline asked Sill to send a statement showing how she was investing the children's money. Despite repeated requests, they said, Sill refused to send a statement. So in 1989, the Jolines sued and asked the Pinellas County Circuit Court to force an accounting.

"We wanted to see where she was putting the money," Eva Joline said. "We wanted to see if it was in a high-interest-bearing account. We knew it was going to be in there for a long period of time."

For 15 months, the legal system dragged on without securing an accounting. Finally, a circuit judge found Sill in contempt of court and threatened to jail her for 30 days unless she produced bank statements and other records within 10 days.

Instead of quelling the family fight, the records heaped on more fuel. The records showed that Sill had kept the money in a money-market fund. That earned a lower interest rate than other investments but gave Sill ready access to the children's money.

The bank records also showed that Sill repeatedly had withdrawn money for her own use. At one point, she had withdrawn $87,500.

Sill told the court she had borrowed the money. She produced a note from Lauren Sill, as borrower, to Lauren Sill, as trustee, promising to repay the children's money at 10 percent interest.

With that revelation, the judge removed Sill as trustee. Sill repaid the outstanding principal, plus $23,000 in lost interest, costs and fees.

There is no indication in the lawsuit or in interviews that Sill intended to keep her cousins' money permanently. In a letter to the Florida Bar, she said she used the money for general office expenses.

In court pleadings, the Jolines' attorney, Henry J. Kulakowski, characterized the unsecured loan as "misappropriation of funds, a fraud on the trust and breach of fiduciary duty."

"The big problem I have with a trustee loaning herself money is that you wear two hats," Kulakowski said last week. "As borrower, you want the lowest interest you can get. As lender, you want the most secure terms and the best interest you can get. That's a conflict of interest."

A committee of the Florida Bar agreed. Acting on a complaint by the Jolines, the Bar found probable cause last month that Sill violated Bar rules about conflict, competence, prohibited transfers, safekeeping of property and "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation."

Eva Joline, reflecting on the ill will she now harbors for her sister and niece, said she sometimes wishes her mother had died without leaving any money to anyone. She wistfully recalled her days as a Long Island teen-ager, when she would babysit for her sister's toddler.

"I spent weekends with them all the time," Joline said. "Laurie was my pride and joy. She was the best thing in my life."