Texas estate dispute

Adult children ask Ellis County judge to divorce father from second wife
Jon Nielsen (jnielsen@dallasnews.com)
November 17, 2008
The Dallas Morning News
Claude Thomas married Susana Martinez Ramirez in 2001, but he kept it hidden from his adult children for at least two years.

When they finally found out, they were shocked. That shock turned to anger when his four children realized that most of his estate – and their inheritance – had vanished.

Now the children are asking an Ellis County family court judge to divorce the 45-year-old Mrs. Thomas from their 87-year-old father and award custody of the ailing man to one of his sons.

Mrs. Thomas’ attorney said his client is entitled to Mr. Thomas’ money because they’re married. But his children say she is taking advantage of Mr. Thomas, spending his money on her own children and their father, Santiago Diaz.

At issue for the court is what’s best for Mr. Thomas and whether he’s capable of making his own decisions.

Mr. Thomas exhibits early signs of dementia, but he appears to know what’s happening around him. He’s said in court that he wants no guardian – he’s happy with his wife and her spending habits. And he has disputed testimony that portrays his wife as a villain.

Cases such as these are cropping up more often as people live longer and accumulate more wealth, said Terry Hammond, executive director of the National Guardianship Association.

“It’s a case indicative of where we are as a society,” he said. “That accumulated financial wealth is a target. And the exploitation and love, or the appearance of love, is one of the first ways to an elderly person’s heart.”

Attorneys for the married couple declined requests for interviews with their clients.

Mr. Thomas’ children said they will fight to protect the family legacy. They estimate their father’s estate was valued at as much as $1.5 million. It’s now estimated at $165,000, according to court documents.

While Mr. Thomas’ future is the subject of the guardianship case, the money is the chief issue in a separate civil case filed by the children against Mrs. Thomas. The initial court hearings in that case are pending.

“I’m sitting here watching this woman take what we’ve built,” son Bruce Thomas said. “That woman doesn’t have any idea how hard that money came.”

A frugal life

Claude Weldon Thomas was born into a farming family in Coryell County near Killeen in 1921. He married Geneva White in his early 20s and moved to Hamilton County to continue farming the family’s land. He lived a frugal life, never purchasing anything until he needed it.

“He believed if you didn’t have the money to pay cash, you didn’t buy it,” said his son Keith Thomas.

That went for Christmases as well, when the four Thomas children recalled sometimes receiving just a single gift. Daughter Sue Allen remembers her mother with holes in her dresses and her father coming home at night covered in black dirt from his job.

“I know how hard that money was earned, then to see it all evaporate …” Ms. Allen said, her thought trailing off.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Thomas moved his family to Lancaster. Around 1984 with his two sons, he founded Thomas Machining, a small Red Oak company that sells components for hydraulics services. Mr. Thomas worked there with his sons until December.

Mr. Thomas spent little, according to his children. The main indulgences were frequent trips to the Lancaster Luby’s, where he ate dinner with his first wife, family and friends, then paid the bill. That’s where he met his future wife.

Ms. Martinez Ramirez pushed the tea cart around, refilling drinks for guests.

She became friends with Mr. Thomas and his first wife. She cleaned their modest home, and when Mrs. Thomas’ health failed because of lung cancer, Ms. Martinez Ramirez showed up to console Mr. Thomas.

They got along even though she spoke little English and Mr. Thomas spoke no Spanish.

Accounts vary as to how their marriage came to be.

While on her deathbed, Geneva Thomas reportedly told Ms. Martinez Ramirez that she wanted her husband to marry Ms. Martinez Ramirez. The children said their mother did meet with Ms. Martinez Ramirez but doubt they discussed a marriage proposal.

Mrs. Thomas died in 1999. Less than two years later, Mr. Thomas married Ms. Martinez Ramirez, according to Dallas County records.

Remarried in secret

Despite seeing their father every day at work, Bruce and Keith Thomas never thought their dad had remarried. They saw no sign that the woman lived with him. Even in 2003 when Keith Thomas built two homes – one for himself and one for his father – next door to the shop, he suspected nothing.

“If I had, I probably wouldn’t have built the house,” he said.

Later, Keith Thomas received a call from a banker who said his father’s account was overdrawn.

Keith Thomas grew suspicious. It wasn’t like his father to spend money.

Family members soon learned that Susana and Claude Thomas were husband and wife. Keith Thomas filed the suits earlier this year.

He is temporary guardian of his father’s estate, pending the court’s ruling.

“He feels she will take care of him,” Keith Thomas said about his father. “But once the money’s gone, she’ll be gone.”

On a budget

After the case was filed, Judge Greg Wilhelm put Claude Thomas and his wife on a budget. He also named Dianne Brillhart, a police officer, to be Mr. Thomas’ guardian.

Jason Willett, the attorney for Keith Thomas, recently filed a motion for contempt, saying Mrs. Thomas continued to “expend large amounts of money for her personal use and most likely her extended family.”

Over 13 days in May, according to the filing, Mrs. Thomas withdrew more than $3,300, including more than $2,200 in cash, from their accounts.

Her attorney, Kevin McDonnell, said the money was for groceries and other minor bills. Others allege the money went to her other family.

Records show that Mrs. Thomas and Mr. Diaz own a home together in central Oak Cliff. About six months after the Thomases’ 2001 marriage, Mrs. Thomas co-signed a home equity deed of trust with Mr. Diaz for $55,000. Mrs. Thomas also appears in documents as co-owner on two cars purchased in 2006 with Mr. Diaz.

Mrs. Thomas is unemployed but is looking for a job, according to her attorney. She pays her legal fees by selling homemade tamales.

Last week, the judge found Mrs. Thomas to be in contempt of the court order related to the household budget. He ordered Mrs. Thomas to pay back the money she spent as well as $2,500 in attorney’s fees for Keith Thomas.

She must pay by May 1 or face jail time at $100 per day until the repayment is complete.

Evaluation ordered

At the same time, the trial court also ordered a neuropsychiatric evaluation on Mr. Thomas to determine his level of incapacity.

At a previous court hearing, Mrs. Brillhart said that his second wife is a manipulator.

“Mr. Thomas has a heart of gold,” the guardian said. “He cannot say no when it comes to Mrs. Thomas. If she comes to him, and she’s crying, and she has a bill to pay – even though he knows he shouldn’t write a check, he’s going to sign that check.”

Mrs. Brillhart said she asked Mr. Thomas during lunch one day why he kept his marriage a secret.

He told her that his wife said not to tell.

Her attorney said Mrs. Thomas is entitled to care for her husband’s health and his finances.

“If anybody knows how to take care of anybody, it’s the other spouse,” Mr. McDonnell said. “The evidence shows he’s being well taken care of. That’s never been a problem in the past. Why should it be a problem in the future?”