“Hot dog” estate dispute heats up

What did the hot-dog man will?
A suit leaves the fate of the Bright Leaf wiener uncertain
Marti Maguire, Staff Writer
The News & Observer
http://www.newsobserver.com/news/story/1357352.html
SMITHFIELD – A bitter estate battle over the company that makes Johnston County’s trademark fire-engine red hot dogs troubles the faithful leaving Cricket Grill with grease-stained paper bags stuffed with their lunchtime favorite.  Every week, Cricket sells thousands of Bright Leaf dogs — made for decades just a few miles down the road at Carolina Packers.

The dispute over the estate of John “Buck” Jones, the majority shareholder and president of Carolina Packers, centers on who will control this home-grown culinary institution — the widow Jones named as his sole heir just before he died or the three longtime employees who friends say in court documents Jones hoped would run the company.

Jones headed Carolina Packers until his death from prostate cancer in 2005. At issue are his state of mind in his final days, his stormy relationship with his wife and the trail of wills he left behind.

But for the Cricket crowd, the legal battle stirs fears about the fate of a company that has been a county fixture since Jones’ father founded it in 1941 — and the classic taste of those Bright Leaf dogs.

“If there’s any change in the quality of the product, there will be an uproar,” said Bill Barbee, heading to his car to wolf down a few on his short lunch break.

Joe McLeod, the executor of a will that names the longtime employees as beneficiaries, claims in a lawsuit that Jones’ wife of 47 years, Jean Lassiter Jones, coerced her husband into leaving her control of the company in a new will made a month before he died.

At least one of the three employees is backing the suit filed by McLeod, who was the Joneses’ accountant. McLeod is pursuing the case to uphold his client’s wishes, his lawyer said.

Jean Jones is defending the final will, insisting that her husband’s last-minute change of heart was sincere.

“People who have been married 47 years and are toward the end of their lives tend to think about who really matters,” said John Narron, the Raleigh lawyer representing Jean Jones.

The contested September 2005 will left Jones’ wife all of his assets, including his shares in the company. A will he made six months earlier, before his fight with prostate cancer took a losing turn, left income from the company to her through a trust but ceded his shares to the three employees after his wife’s death. The rest of his estate still would have gone to his wife.

After Jones died, McLeod filed his will first, and Jean Jones contested it. A Johnston County judge sided with her, and then McLeod sued to challenge the decision.

An appeals court confirmed the judge’s ruling in a split decision, allowing the lawsuit to be heard by the state Supreme Court, which sent it back for a jury trial. A date for the case has not been set.

Clouded judgment

Affidavits present dueling versions of Buck Jones’ last days. Friends and doctors of the Carolina Packers president, cited in McLeod’s suit, portray Jones as ravaged by cancer, weak and confused, his judgment clouded by potent painkillers.

Michael Batts, the Rocky Mount lawyer who drafted the March 2005 will, refused to draft a new one in light of Jones’ health and the abrupt shift from his previous estate plans. In court documents, he described an August 2005 meeting in which Jean Jones laid out the new will as her husband sheepishly agreed.

“She’s worn him out,” Batts wrote in notes from the meeting.

Jean Jones’ portrait is of an ailing but still strong-willed and capable man who commissioned a painting, sold a Lear jet and continued to make decisions about his treatment in the days before his death.

“The deceased is not there anymore to tell you what he was thinking,” said Travis Morton, McLeod’s attorney. “A jury has to look at the circumstances and events that led up to the change in his estate plans and decide.”

Those circumstances also include the relationship between Jones and his wife, who had no children.

Court documents filed by both sides say that Buck Jones had an affair with his secretary, who was named as a beneficiary in a will drafted in 2001.

Jean Jones filed for divorce that year with a scathing complaint that claimed her husband pushed and grabbed her hard enough to leave bruises and waved a gun at her. The couple later reconciled, and in 2004, Buck Jones removed his secretary from his will.

Wife makes a stand

In an affidavit, Jean Jones recalls telling McLeod that she hoped to change the March will that denied her controlling interest.  She also said she would be more aggressive in pursuing that change than she was during her husband’s affair: “I might have told him that people had walked over me, but they were not going to walk over me anymore.”

Narron, her attorney, said Jones’ wills before the early 1990s were similar to his final will, leaving everything to his wife.  Narron said that their marital problems prompted Buck Jones to change his estate plans.

Morton, however, notes that Buck Jones’ 1992 will, made before the affair, does not give his wife control of the company. Several friends in court documents agreed that was his wish.

Shortly after her husband died, Jean Jones took over as president of Carolina Packers. One of the three employees named in the March will, administrative assistant Lynette Thompson, was fired about a year ago. The other two employees, manager Kent Denning and plant manager Johnny Hayes, still work at the boxy beige and tan warehouse on U.S. 301 on the south side of town.

Friends of Buck Jones say in court documents that he feared his widow might sell the family company. But Jean Jones, who declined to comment on the estate dispute, said she has no plans to sell Carolina Packers.

“Nothing is going to happen to the company,” she said. “Whether I’m there to work for it or what, the company is fine.”

CAROLINA PACKERSTHE COMPANY: Carolina Packers was founded at its current location on U.S. 301 in Smithfield in 1941. The company had an on-site slaughterhouse until 1997. Buck Jones Jr. took over the company from his father in 1977. Its products are most popular in Eastern North Carolina.

THE DOGS: The Smithfield-based company’s trademark primary-red Bright Leaf hot dogs are made of beef and pork — not chicken, like some competitors, the company claims. The company also makes the shorter, spicier Red Hots and other products including turkey hot dogs and bologna.

WHY ARE THEY RED?: The fire-engine red color comes from food coloring, but current company President Jean Jones says not to worry. “It’s no more color than what’s in Gatorade,” she said.

WEB SITE: CAROLINAPACKERS.COM

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  • belicoso

    If there was adequate estate planning in place then the courts should have to respect it. Unless there is indication that the documents were executed under duress or coercion then they are valid and there should not be any debate as to who should be the recipient of the company. Estate challenges are becoming a disturbing trend, with the most high profile being in the case of Anna Nicole Smith’s challenge to the estate of her husband J. Howard Marshall. Anna fought for over a decade, up until her death, to try and get a piece of the Marshall fortune even though she was specifically left out of Howard’s will. This sort of ridiculous estate dispute is the kind of thing that could completely invalidate estate planning law if any concessions are made to those who are not even named in the will of the deceased. I sincerely hope that the wishes of Mr. Jones are respected in full and that his property is only distributed to those who were in his plans.

  • Kim

    I agree, but since there are so many questions as to what his TRUE wishes were, I feel that they should question any and everyone who spent his last months with him, doctors, family, friends…….. I am sure that he was surrounded by many people who both knew him and talked with him.

    It is a sad world were people are more concerned with what they might or might not get from someone who passes. It is even sadder that people lie, cheat, and steal from the ones they profess to love.

    Although I am upset with what my family did not get after a guardianship, I am extremely happy that we did get my in-laws WEDDING RINGS, and their CHINA CABINET back when the guardians wanted to sell them for more money for themselves.

    I hope and pray also that this man’s TRUE WISHES ARE CARRIED OUT.

  • admin

    belicoso is right about the disturbing trend of speculative estate disputes. With this story on the Jones estate, it sounds as though legitimate cause exists to question circumstances under which the last will was executed. Too often though, as with Marshall v. Marshall, the claims are unjustified, sometimes just plain ridiculous.

    In a recent column, Horace Cooper wrote of how rightful heirs are increasingly facing what he calls an inheritance litigation tax as a result of unscrupulous individual’s targeting estates in hopes of a lucrative settlement. See “Boomers to Become ‘Rich’ Targets for Estate Looters” in the EoD Commentary section for more on this topic.