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Fee for one call that finds lost will: $350,000

David L. Brite knew he might be the beneficiary of his stepgrandmother's Pinellas estate. When she died, the California man just didn't have a clue about where to find her will.

So he hired St. Petersburg lawyer Ed Jagger and his firm to help. If Jagger found the will, Brite contracted to pay 25 percent of his inheritance as a fee.

Jagger found the will. Quickly.

Brite said in court papers, Jagger found it by making one phone call. To Brite's surprise, he was inheriting an estate worth more than $1.4-million.

Brite wasn't as delighted when he calculated the fee for the one phone call: an estimated $350,000.

"We think that's excessive for one phone call," said Brite's mother, Betty Brite. "Anyone could have done what he did. It doesn't take a lawyer to use the telephone."

David Brite, who declined to comment, is asking a Pinellas probate judge to reject Jagger's fee as excessive. In court papers, Brite says Florida Bar rules ban Jagger or his firm, Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein, from collecting "a clearly excessive or unconscionable fee."

A court hearing on the matter is not yet set.

Jagger declined to comment for this story. But his father, Robert E. Jagger, the former Pinellas-Pasco public defender who works in the same firm as his son, said he and Ed Jagger did a lot more work on the case than Brite acknowledges.

"It was much, much more than one phone call," Jagger said. "Our efforts were considerable. We're lucky we found the will. It wasn't something that just fell off the roof at our feet."

Brite and his mother say it was easier than that. They say they gave Jagger a road map to the will without realizing it.

Brite, 38, a consumer electronics salesman who lives in Santa Monica, had lost contact with his stepgrandmother over the years. He didn't realize that the woman, Mary Kay Brite of South Pasadena, died at 86 on Jan. 14.

The retiree left few survivors. Her husband, a former employee of the U.S. Commerce Department, died more than 17 years before.

But no will was found in her effects.

Within weeks, David Brite began receiving calls from heir locator services telling him his stepgrandmother was dead and that he might be her only heir.

He set out to find the will.

Brite got a copy of his grandfather's will from a Pinellas court, filed when he died in 1984.

Brite, said his mother, was looking for clues and thought the same lawyer who wrote that will might have prepared Mary Brite's will.

When Brite received a copy of the will in February, he found nothing he thought would be useful, Betty Brite said. But, he missed a huge clue.

In small print at the bottom of each page was the name of the firm that had prepared it.

"We just didn't see the tiny, tiny print," Betty Brite said.

The firm is defunct. But one member, Roger Larson, practices in Clearwater and might easily have been found, she acknowledged.

When he hired Jagger, Brite sent him a copy of his grandfather's will.

Because the firm listed on the will is defunct and he didn't recognize the names of the firm's partners, Robert Jagger said he had to pull the will at the court clerk's office in Largo. Once he got it, he found the name of the lawyer who filed it.

That lawyer then led him to Larson. Larson, who said he has known Robert Jagger for years, gave the Jaggers a copy of Mary Brite's will.

Robert Jagger said he went through 12 cartons of Mary Brite's personal papers looking for a will. He said he and his son devised litigation strategy in the event the will they found was challenged.

Jagger thinks 25 percent of the inheritance is fair.

"You've got to look at the results," he said. "If he gets a million dollars, it's not out of line. In my opinion, David Brite had a good chance of receiving nothing if we had not intervened and found it."

Florida Bar rules on what constitutes an excessive fee are unclear.

Elizabeth Tarbert, a bar ethics counsel, said, "Normally, it's got to be something that shocks the conscience."

Bruce McDonald, a probate lawyer in Pensacola, said, "Some lawyers might have a problem taking a large fee based on a few hours work."

But he said the Jaggers assumed a large risk when they took the case. They didn't know if it would take a year to find the will, McDonald said.

And once finding it, Brite's inheritance might only have been $1,000, giving them a $250 fee for a year's work.

Betty and David Brites' accountant, Paul McColley, said Mary Brite made her money through wise investment in bonds over the years. He thinks the fee is too high.

"It's been an easy estate," he said, estimating Jagger's fee at $350,000 based on the net proceeds of the estate. "No issues. No litigation. It's the easiest work you can find."

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