Ga. judge overturns will for pet care

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

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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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Einstein 04/26/11 - 06:41 am
One million dollars to take

One million dollars to take care of a few dogs and cats?! Are they sure that the lady didn't have a few screws loose?

curly123053 04/26/11 - 07:57 am
Something definitely stinks

Something definitely stinks here.

rubyjean 04/26/11 - 08:41 am
Another bottom-feeding

Another bottom-feeding Laywer. I agree if an honest laywer could be found in Elberton perhaps they could make this right.

BamaMan 04/26/11 - 08:46 am
Hard to find a lawyer that

Hard to find a lawyer that will sue another lawyer - at least one that's within a few hundred miles of the same town.

CoastalDawg 04/26/11 - 10:03 am
Well the court has the case

Well the court has the case now so a suit might not be necessary. But then the question remains as to WHO will be beneficiary if the attorney's girlfriend loses her grip. This reminds me of a similar case in Savannah a few years back where TWO attorneys took advantage of a woman in comatose state and got her money, leaving her minor children to fend for themselves. I think one attorney had sanctions against him, maybe even was disbarred but the other one left the state and probably is doing the same somewhere else. The probate judge in Elbert County seems to be a bit more astute than many judges in probate courts who often just rubber stamp whatever is filed for an estate.

emergencyfan 04/26/11 - 12:02 pm
First off, you earned that

First off, you earned that money, which is hard enough with the government taking its share right and left, you should have the right to leave it to whomever or whatever you darn well want. If you want to use the money to build a memorial the the one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-eater that's your business.


"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.

My question is why wasn't Phillips getting this milk? She has the time to file a lawsuits, sure, but apparently not the time to go to the store for her cousin?

I dunno, maybe the lawyer did exert "undue influence" on her, or maybe the lawyer just knew that no one cared about this woman and was trying to help her in her final years and make sure her money was spent the way she wanted. She wasn't his relative, she was his client, so yes, I think he has the right to charge for his would have been nice if he hadn't, but every time he went to the store or something for her, that was time taken away from his business and his family so I really can't fault him.

The irony is, the estate is just going to different lawyers now (the ones arguing the case for the cousin).

InChristLove 04/26/11 - 12:54 pm
According to him he charged

According to him he charged her estate not to attend the funeral but to perform it.

"I wasn't just attending the funeral; I conducted the funeral, and I did a lot of other things," he said.

I believe he might have been quilty of taking advantage of Ms. Johnston but it appears that the cousin is just now coming out of the woodwork because she's been made aware of how much money Ms. Johnston had.

I say sell the property, house, and put all the money in separate charities to help homeless animals. Seems that was Ms. Johnston's intent. Round up all her animals and place them in good homes or at least house them until they can be adopted out.

Cadence 04/26/11 - 02:43 pm
I just have to echo what has

I just have to echo what has already been said. To take advantage of a dying woman; to have her sign her will in intensive care. So many of the things done were grounds for disbarment. The animals should be cared for as she desired; it's her d**n money. The rest perhaps a trust to provide grants to animal agencies.

So important to have a will before you get sick. Poor lady.

corgimom 04/26/11 - 08:08 pm
If I were that cousin, I'd

If I were that cousin, I'd fight it too. A bequest is one thing; out-and-out theft is another.

I'd do the same thing. What a terrible, scummy person, to take advantage of a sick, dying, desperate woman in intensive care. "Sound mind and body" doesn't mean dying in an ICU.

Attorneys don't charge $150 per hour to deliver milk to a client. She had money, she could've easily hired someone for far less to get it for her. It was his job, as attorney, to handle her affairs in her best interest to conserve the estate- not take advantage of her. That's his fiduciary duty.

What a scummy, low-down, conniving thief.

seenitB4 04/27/11 - 05:53 am
He took advantage of a sick

He took advantage of a sick old woman... see why there are so many lawyer jokes.

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