County Manager at the Center of Million Dollar Estate Battle with Daughter
Edgartown, a small town on Martha’s Vineyard, is the location of a tangled estate battle involving Martina Thornton, Dukes County Manager, who is accused of manipulating Louis S. Stix and creating a new will 101 days before his death which could lead to her inheriting a large portion of his estate. As reported in The Vineyard Gazette, “Tangled Probate Dispute Involves Dukes County Manager,” longtime Edgartown resident Stix died at age 84 in December of cardiopulmonary arrest.
His will was signed a few months prior to his death and is being contested by his daughter Margaret Stix. She says Thornton prepared the new will, using undue influence to make her and her husband key beneficiaries of the estate shortly after the decedent was diagnosed with cancer. Thornton’s attorney said the senior Stix and Thornton were longtime friends and there was nothing unusual about the case.
Ms. Stix says her father left an estate of $1.2 million, but said he was living in a dilapidated house with no heat or plumbing near Thornton’s home. She also said that he’d suffered emotional and mental instability all his life. Ms. Stix stated in an affidavit, that Thornton “held herself out as an attorney” to her father, although she wasn’t licensed to practice law. Thornton, who was appointed Dukes County Manager in 2012, strongly refuted the claims made against her in court. She said it’s not uncommon for a will to be drafted by a person who isn’t an estate planning attorney, and there’s no requirement that a person drafting a will be an attorney. However, look at the mess this created!
The will leaves Margaret Stix and her brother $10,000 each, along with a provision that if either contests the validity of the will, they’d forfeit the bequest. In Florida, no-contest clauses are not enforceable. When I review a prospects prior estate planning documents and see a "no-contest clause or provision" I ask the prospect if they directed their prior attorney to draft this language in the document. They always look at me puzzled when I tell them that this provision is not enforceable in Florida. This is why it is so important to go to an attorney who practices regularly in estate planning and probate.
According to court documents, three months after Mr. Stix died, Thornton petitioned the probate court to name her as the special representative to the estate. In his new will, Mr. Stix designated his brother Daniel Stix and his ex-wife Jennifer Stix as personal representatives. Following his death, both filed waivers saying they did not want to be a special representative. The will stated that Thornton would serve as special representative, if the two didn’t want the responsibility.
Stix was suspicious of the naming of two special representatives in her father’s new will, believing that her father wouldn’t have knowingly nominated them as his personal representatives because neither would have been willing or able to serve. Daniel has been living in a nursing home in Connecticut after suffering a major stroke, and Jennifer doesn’t live on the Vineyard. She thinks her father was either unaware that he was nominating these individuals as his personal representatives or was so confused that he didn’t recall their current health and relationship with him.
This spring, a probate court did not grant Ms. Thornton’s request to be appointed special representative for the estate. Instead, the court appointed a Falmouth attorney who had been nominated by Margaret Stix. However, this appointment has been extended twice because the parties are still bickering over who will become the permanent representative of the estate. Both Ms. Thornton and her attorney have said that the matter is currently in mediation, with a date set for a meeting with a retired judge in the near future.
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Reference: (Martha’s Vineyard, MA) Vineyard Gazette (November 17, 2016) “Tangled Probate Dispute Involves Dukes County Manager”