A new battle of wills

Artist’s death sparks battle of wills
Stephanie Vosk
June 7, 2009
Cape Cod Times
Her personal collection included works by the masters – Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Pierre August Renoir among them.

The valuable pieces combined are worth about $26 million, court records show.

In 2004, Provincetown artist Mary Kass willed the paintings and sculptures to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

She also agreed to give $225,000 out of her $40 million estate to several local charities at the time of her death.

And after she died March 12, the trustees of that will sought to have her last wishes carried out.

But so did her niece and nephew – only they produced a will from 1992 that makes no mention of the museum or the charities.  The dispute is now tied up in probate court, freezing the money and the artwork until a settlement is reached.

Kass was raised in Washington, D.C., and studied art at the Sorbonne in Paris, according to her obituary in the Provincetown Banner. She was 78 when she died.

In 2004, Kass established the trust, leaving Merrill Lynch Bank and a friend, Elizabeth Villari, control of her estate upon her passing, records show. Under that arrangement, just over $3 million would go to several individuals – including $1 million each to her niece, Catherine Mason of Washington, D.C., and her nephew, Thomas Berger of Virginia. Her Provincetown properties would be deeded to Villari and another friend, Mary Ellen Henry of Provincetown, according to the agreement.

But her niece and nephew claimed even before her death that Villari had maintained undue influence over Kass, which persuaded her to change her will from a prior version in which they received more money.

Mason and Berger are claiming a will signed by Kass on June 1, 1992, that names them the primary beneficiaries of her estate is really the one that’s valid. Villari, a caregiver hired by Kass in 2001 and a current Provincetown resident, wasn’t provided for at all in that version, they argue.

“Their petition is simply that they have a will and they’ve been named executors and they’re asking the court to allow it,” said Brian Bixby, the Boston-based lawyer representing Mason and Berger.  The case is just in its beginning stages, he said.

The brother-sister duo pitted themselves against Villari several years ago, asking the court to appoint a guardian for their aunt, something Villari opposed.

After a 10-day trial in 2005, Judge Lisa Roberts appointed Villari and Boston attorney Michael Puzo as co-guardians of Kass, who was termed a “mentally ill person.”

Puzo was appointed guardian of her estate. Most court records in the case were impounded.

Larry Varn, who represents Villari, declined to speak in detail about the upcoming cases, citing the impoundment order in the older one.
Like that case, this one is shaping up to be lengthy and complex, according to Bixby.

The parties are scheduled to return to Barnstable County Probate Court on June 19.

And as the dispute over the wills plays out locally, the U.S. attorney’s office – representing the National Gallery of Art, established as an independent government entity within the Smithsonian Institution – asked last week to have another part of the case sent to federal court in Boston.

In April, Merrill Lynch Bank, as co-trustee, asked a probate judge to allow the bank to “preserve and maintain the assets held in the trust.” Under the bank’s proposal, that would include converting assets to cash, paying Kass’ bills and making repairs on her Provincetown house. No payments would be made to individuals.

The bank also asked that Villari not be allowed to serve as co-trustee and that all assets spoken of in the 1992 be transferred to the 2004 trust.

Reached at her Boston office, Shari Levitan, lawyer for Merrill Lynch, declined to comment on “client matters.”

The National Gallery of Art is named as a defendant in that proceeding, leading to the request to move it to Boston.

The case has been assigned to federal Judge Joseph Tauro, but no hearings have been set.