PORTSMOUTH — Accused of writing a new will and trust for an elderly woman with dementia, to divert most of her $1.8 million estate to a city police officer, Hampton attorney Gary Holmes is asking a judge to keep information about the case out of public view.
The case involves the estate of the late Geraldine Webber and is being disputed by multiple parties who allege Webber had dementia when she executed the new estate plans that largely benefit Portsmouth police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin. The parties also allege Goodwin unduly influenced Webber before she named him her primary beneficiary.
In a motion dated Aug. 30, Holmes’ attorney, Ralph Holmes (no relation), petitioned the county probate court for a protective order to keep future information about Webber’s medical, legal and financial affairs under seal. Holmes claims Webber’s medical information is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, in spite of the fact she died Dec. 11, 2012. Holmes also argues state law protects attorney-client records even after clients’ deaths.
“The facts of this case have garnered a significant amount of media attention,” Holmes wrote to the court. “It has become abundantly clear that the records and information produced going forward have a substantial likelihood of being published in the media. Without protection from the court, such information and records will include the decedent’s personal medical and financial records, which should be safeguarded from publication.”
Portsmouth attorney Paul McEachern, who is representing several clients named in Webber’s prior will, said he’ll oppose the request to keep the records under seal.
“We’ll certainly object,” McEachern said. “The allegations of wrongdoing are wrongdoing by public officials. We’ll put that in an objection.”
Holmes’ motion to keep the legal documents private states he does not have the support of other attorneys representing other clients disputing Webber’s final will and trust.
McEachern’s clients were beneficiaries of a will Webber signed in 2009 through attorney James Ritzo, but were omitted, or named as lesser heirs in a will and trust she signed with Holmes in 2012. McEachern alleges Webber had dementia and Gary Holmes, who video recorded Webber signing her new estate documents, treated Webber “like she lacked capacity.”
Attorney David Eby is representing the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The medical groups were beneficiaries of Webber’s prior will, each for one-fourth of her estate, then were named $25,000 beneficiaries in the final trust. Eby alleges Goodwin “knowingly took advantage” of Webber, who was 93 and “suffering from dementia,” to “effectively seek to transfer the vast majority of Ms. Webber’s significant assets” to himself.
“This despite the fact that she had only recently met Aaron Goodwin prior to signing the estate planning document,” Eby alleges.
Also challenging the estate is Webber’s mentally disabled grandson, who was named in Webber’s 2009 will as an heir, but was omitted from her last will and trust.
The Boston law firm of Kopelman and Paige is representing Braintree (Mass.) High School in the legal dispute. The high school was named a $240,000 beneficiary of Webber’s 2009 will for the stated purpose of providing college scholarships in memory of Webber’s late son, Bruce. The 2012 will and trust names Braintree High as a $25,000 beneficiary.
City Attorney Robert Sullivan filed an appearance with the court for the city to be a party in the case. In Webber’s 2009 will, the Portsmouth Police and Fire departments were each designated to receive one-quarter of her estate, after the sale of her home and other assets. In the will and trust Webber endorsed through Holmes, the departments were each named as $25,000 beneficiaries.
According to state documents obtained by the Herald, four years before she signed the 2012 will and trust, Webber was diagnosed with “moderate dementia.” A second medical opinion, dated a month after Webber signed the new will and trust, also described her as having dementia.
Also included in the state’s investigatory reports is one dated May 2, 2012 — a month before Webber signed the new estate plans and was based on a visit by a state investigator. That investigator wrote that Webber said, “I’m leaving Aaron the house and the money” and “Aaron said, ‘Don’t tell people.’”
Ralph Holmes said his client met with Webber “many times” and “throughout, she was clear and consistent about her wishes.” Ralph Holmes added he had “every confidence that the probate court will uphold the will and trust.”
Goodwin has repeatedly said, “The allegations that I exploited a member of our community are completely untrue.”
Ritzo, who said he wrote several wills for Webber over the years, including the 2009 will, has asked the court to award him $65,000 from Webber’s estate for the quarter century he said he worked as her lawyer, but was not paid.
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