Ga. judge overturns will for pet care

Lawyer makes girlfriend beneficiary after client set up $1 million trust

ATHENS, Ga. -- A terminally ill Elberton, Ga.,  woman who set up a $1 million trust fund to care for her cats and dogs when she was gone was "unduly influenced" by a lawyer who made his girlfriend the largest beneficiary of the estate, an Athens-Clarke Probate Court judge ruled in rejecting the contested will.

Now the case has been appealed to Elbert County Superior Court, where a jury eventually could hear the facts about a woman who left most of her estate to provide for her pets.

Probate Judge Susan P. Tate in March overturned the will of 53-year-old Kay Elaine Johnston, who died of lung cancer in December 2007. Tate ruled that attorney Robert Johnson used the power of suggestion on the woman to unduly influence the will.

Johnston's cousin, Carol Phillips, asked the court to throw out the will. The will left a $1 million trust fund to provide for the animals but it also bequeathed a home and seven acres of land to the lawyer's girlfriend, Kyria Wilhite. She was to be paid $50,000 a year plus additional fees for taking care of the 50 cats and six dogs that were alive at the time of Johnston 's death, according to Tate's ruling.

Wilhite had helped Johnston with the pets for about two months before she died.

"It was devastating - shocking - I can't say it any other way," Phillips said about reading the will for the first time. "I couldn't understand that [Robert Johnson] would have done anything like this. He was at her funeral, and I thought he was such a kind and loving man."

According to Tate's ruling, Johnson billed the deceased woman's estate for every visit made to her home, even charging to attend her funeral.

"If she said, 'I want a gallon of milk,' he'd go to the grocery store and charge his lawyer fee to get it, plus the milk. Everything he did, he charged for," Phillips said.

Robert Johnson failed to tell Johnston about his relationship with Wilhite, who became the major beneficiary of the will, according to the court ruling. He had his client sign the will in October 2007 while she was hospitalized in intensive care.

Three pieces of land are in the will, a house and 25 acres that have been sold, the house and seven acres left to Wilhite, and 200 acres of mostly woodlands willed to The Nature Conservancy, said Athens attorney Tom Rogers, who represents Merrill Lynch Bank and Trust Co., the will administrator.

Johnston, who was born in Alabama, moved to Elberton in 2006 to care for her dying mother, according to court records. Johnston divorced young and had no children.

"Judge Tate's order is what it is, but I wasn't a party to that," Robert Johnson said. "I don't agree with that. There's just so much to it, and it'll have to be heard by another court, possibly a jury here in Elbert County."

Johnson said he charges $150 an hour.

"I wasn't just attending the funeral; I conducted the funeral, and I did a lot of other things," he said. "They chose to make me the bad guy in the case, but it's got to be heard again.

"Kay was sick. When she was sick, she called me and asked me to do some things for her. She asked me to make medical decisions. She asked me to be a decision-maker for her," he said.

 

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