Inheritance dispute involving Portsmouth detective draws to a close
DOVER — A months-long dispute about whether a Portsmouth police detective took advantage of an elderly woman to position himself as the main beneficiary of her $2.7 million estate before she died is now in the hands of a judge.
The estate of Geraldine Webber may not have as much money as it once did in the wake of mounting legal costs from a 17-day probate hearing in 7th Circuit-Probate Division-Dover.
But for many residents, the question at play is whether Judge Gary R. Cassavechia will help settle an ongoing dispute within the city of Portsmouth about whether police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin unduly influenced a woman described by some as lonely and mentally failing.
“The power of his badge and attractiveness became overpowering for a 90-year-old woman suffering from dementia,” said Paul McEachern, a lawyer representing Webber’s former neighbors. “From 2011 on, everything Aaron Goodwin did was to protect his expectancy.”
Cassavechia is only focused on whether Webber, who died in December 2012 at age 93, maintained her testamentary capacity when she had her will rewritten by her new lawyer, Gary Holmes. The judge is also expected to make a finding on whether Goodwin exerted undue influence on Webber to have her estate revised during their fast-developing two-year friendship.
David Eby, a lawyer representing Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Shriners’ Hospital for Children, suggested in closing arguments that his clients disputed the revised estate not only because their share of the estate shrunk when Goodwin was added to the will.
“Memorial Sloan had initiated (it) because it was the right thing to do,” Eby said.
Goodwin met Webber while investigating a burglary complaint at her home in the fall of 2010, according to court testimony. But Goodwin, then 34, quickly got involved in her daily affairs, including her growing concerns about her longtime attorney, Jim Ritzo.
Lawyers battling Goodwin’s inheritance suggested he played a role in having Ritzo investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office then went lawyer shopping on Webber’s behalf once she told him that she wanted to leave him her waterfront home.
“At no point does Aaron say, ‘Geraldine, we can’t do this. We need to look at a guardianship. I can’t take your money,’” Eby said.
Lawyer Ralph Holmes said that Webber demonstrated she had a sharp mind, rattling off detailed knowledge to her new lawyer about the value of her estate and who she wanted to inherit her assets when she died. His client, Attorney Gary Holmes, met with Webber 10 times over an 8 month period to revise the will.
“This was the most meaningful relationship in her life,” Ralph Holmes said about Webber’s relationship with Goodwin. “She wanted to go to a casino, he took her there twice. He took her for an occasional lunch and Bloody Mary. That’s kindness, not undue influence.”
Goodwin’s attorney, Charles Doleac, pushed back against claims that his client committed any wrongdoing, citing testimony that the elderly Webber liked to shock people with dirty jokes and strong opinions.
“She wanted to live her life on her own terms. In fact, she is a contemporary of Frank Sinatra. He has a famous song ‘My Way,’” said Doleac, suggesting Webber did things without worry of what others thought. “She was not doddering.”
The probate dispute also highlighted a divide between former and current members of the Portsmouth Police Department about when those in the department knew about Goodwin’s potential windfall. The department’s former Chief Lou Ferland testified under oath that he was never told by Goodwin that he was poised to inherent her waterfront home in 2011.
Goodwin insisted during his testimony that he did tell his chiefs, and remained forthright with other superiors in the department about his friendship with Webber.
Cassavechia told lawyers at the close of Tuesday hearing that he will needed time to consider legal arguments surrounding the burden of proof in the case before he officially takes the case under advisement.