Another “grubby tale” from CT probate

Inheritance Case: Another Grubby Tale From Probate Court
Rick Green
March 5, 2010
The Hartford Courant
http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-probate-green0305.artmar05,0,4129040.column
Shortly before 92-year-old Josephine Smoron died last June, Southington Probate Judge Bryan F. Meccariello approved a dramatic change to her will, handing her property to three local churches and bypassing her longtime caretaker.

Sam Manzo, caretaker for nearly 25 years at the sprawling Valley Spring Farm bordering I-84 not far from Queen Street, had been due to inherit what was left of the broken-down estate, valued at well over $1 million.

Instead, he was disinherited, replaced by two trusts.

Manzo, however, fought back, hiring a lawyer and filing an official complaint. The result was similar to what happens when you flip on the lights in a filthy kitchen. The roaches scatter.

Last week, I sat in Meccariello’s courtroom and again watched what unfolds when the outside world peers into probate. Meccariello abruptly recused himself from the long-running Smoron saga, just days after denying a request by Manzo’s lawyer to remove himself and seven months after Manzo’s lawyer began challenging the judge’s actions.

The Manzo odyssey is another grubby tale from our probate court system, which continues to operate within its own unique orbit. It’s why probate should be part of Superior Court. It’s why judges should be carefully appointed, not elected, and why misdeeds lurk in probate’s dark corners.

This is not Judge Meccariello’s first brush with questionable behavior. In 2007, he was admonished for co-mingling his roles as judge, private lawyer and real estate investor in a series of complicated land deals.

“I’m very upset. I have spoken to counsel regarding what my rights are,” Meccariello told me. “Getting caught up in this claim of corruption, that’s what bothers me the most.”

The Smoron story raises additional troubling questions, not just about Meccariello, but why this court system survives while continuing to trample the rights of people it is supposed to serve.

Josephine Smoron, who had no immediate family, changed her will in 1996, naming Manzo heir to her farm to reserve it and her beloved cows. This came after a court battle over the estate of her brother, who had wanted to give his share of the farm to a local church. Smoron prevailed and ended up with the farm.

Angry at plans to develop the property, Smoron willed the 80-acre farm to Manzo.

But shortly before Smoron died last June, Meccariello approved a change giving all property instead to Catholic churches in Southington and New Britain. Despite the fact that he was named in the previous will, Manzo and other distant Smoron relatives were not notified of the hearing to create the new trusts benefiting the churches. Manzo and a long list of others had been dutifully notified of all previous proceedings in the case.

In fact, only Meccariello attended the hearing on May 12, 2009, the day Manzo was disinherited. Meccariello was acting on an application by John T. Nugent, Smoron’s court-appointed conservator.

Meccariello “allowed the conservator to rewrite the will” without any evidence that Smoron desired this, Manzo’s lawyer, Barry Pontolillo, complained later. He noted that Nugent was “a deacon” in one of the churches that stood to benefit.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this case smells like the manure at Smoron’s farm.

Nugent had filed to create the new trusts after arranging a purchase agreement with a contractor represented by Carl Verderame, a local developer. Nugent and Verderame did not return calls for comment.

In January, Verderame announced plans for an $18 million indoor sports complex on the property. Southington officials were enthusiastic, noting that the development would bring in $200,000 in tax revenue. Verderame’s application is currently before the town.

Manzo, meanwhile, filed a complaint against Meccariello with the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct. Days later, Meccariello again declined to recuse himself — but agreed to reconsider his decision to approve the new trusts. A week ago, he stepped aside with little explanation.

This week, I visited Manzo on the Smoron farm, where he lives in a trailer with his girlfriend and still tends a dozen or so of Smoron’s cows, who wander about like large pets. The property is lovely. The farm is a wreck.

“I felt that I was a part of her,” said Manzo, who began working for Smoron and her brother in 1986.

The farm, an eyesore and local annoyance, has a long history of cows escaping and creating trouble. Manzo briefly served as Smoron’s conservator until Meccariello removed him after finding that the elderly woman was “living in inhumane conditions.”

As Smoron grew frail and the farm deteriorated, Manzo said things “snowballed. I went with my good intuition to keep on helping her. It’s never been a money situation.”

Borrowing funds to stay afloat, Manzo said his home was foreclosed on and he lost his logging and firewood business.

“When her money was gone I paid out of my business accounts. I didn’t get any help. I was running out of money.”

I don’t know if Manzo deserves all this land. But this is clear: Smoron, long before she died, named him as the sole heir. He deserves a fair hearing.

Josephine Smoron deserved a court that respected her rights.

In coming weeks, a new judge will now reconsider Smoron’s estate.

Once again, probate must clean up a mess. Once again, we must ask why this outmoded court system survives.

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  • John Doe

    I know local developer Carl. This is not fair game and I feel that all were involved. I was involved with another land deal in town and myself and another person were not given a fair share due to the history of Carl and his family. This needs to be stopped.