CONCORD — Unless he loses on appeal, Nathan Carman has escaped having to defend in a local probate court against claims he shot his grandfather to death.

A judge’s surprising ruling comes thanks to the complexity, if not inherent contradictions, of New Hampshire residency laws.

When John Chakalos was murdered in Windsor, Conn., in December 2013, his family claimed New Hampshire residency.

At that time, Chakalos had a valid New Hampshire driver’s license, wills and trusts entered here and had voted in eight different elections in the Granite State.

Chakalos’ three surviving daughters sued in probate court here with a petition aimed at denying their nephew, Carman, the right to as much as a $7 million inheritance.

Carmen has not been charged in his grandfather’s murder, but has been considered a suspect, according to Windsor police.

In 2016, Carman was the last person to have seen his mother, Linda Carman, alive. He claimed she was lost at sea when the boat they took on a fishing trip sank off the coast of Rhode Island. He was rescued eight days later clinging to a life raft.

On Friday Sixth Circuit Probate Court Judge David King’s decided Chakalos was not a resident and he canceled a three-week bench trial regarding Carman’s actions.

The decision is all the more eye-turning especially to conservatives who two years ago beefed up voter registration requirements aimed largely at out-of-state college students starting in 2020.

“This has thrown all residency into chaos,” said former Senate Majority Leader and lobbyist Bob Clegg who’s defended Gov. Chris Sununu signing the law change that went all the way up to the Supreme Court last fall.

“The decision now appears to allow every person who winters in a warmer climate to be challenged at the voting polls as non-citizens. It also calls into question certain tax exemptions from elderly or veteran which can only be granted to residents.”

The Democratically-led New Hampshire Legislature is debating whether to put a repeal of those changes on Sununu’s desk later this spring.

In his ruling, King revealed that residency for voting was one thing but it’s quite another under estate law when it comes to the owner of real property.

King cited and even considered as “instructive” the advisory opinion of the Supreme Court that concluded the controversial law on voting requirements would be constitutional.

The high court opined on voting residency but not in the context of estate law, King wrote.

Current state laws have more than 600 definitions of residency which are not all alike and veteran lawyers have said clients need to be made aware of the many differences between them.

Voting rights definition

The voting rights definition of residence is, “The place of abode or domicile is that designated by a person as his principal place of physical presence for the indefinite future to the exclusion of all others.”

And in his decision, King decided that the West Chesterfield, N.H., mansion Chakalos had built and finished in 1991 — with its $3.1 million value, 15 rooms, in-ground swimming pool and tennis court — did not qualify as his home.

Appeal being mulled

The Chakalos family through lawyer Dan Small said King was mistaken about his New Hampshire residency and they were mulling a Supreme Court appeal.

“John immersed himself in New Hampshire where all of his adult and childhood friends live and where he constantly gave back to his community,” Small said. “He especially felt a part of Keene where he was from and Chesterfield where he built the home of his dreams, voted and had many joy-filled occasions with his family and friends,” Small wrote.

King had ruled Chakalos was a NH resident in May 2018.

But last month Carman’s newly hired legal team from the Shaheen and Gordon law firm supplied the judge with many documents and exhibits raising doubts about the New Hampshire residency claim.

For example during a January 2014 interview with Windsor Police investigating Chakalos’ murder, his certified financial planner, William Rabbitt, told authorities they tried to create a New Hampshire residence profile but without complete success.

“They didn’t want (John and Rita) to live in Connecticut. We wanted them to be from New Hampshire…And they have to live six months and a day and they were skirting it big time. It was gonna be a problem. We knew it was gonna be a problem. You have to live in New Hampshire and if you own a house in Windsor that looks bad, right” Rabbitt said according to court documents.

Later he added, “I mean the whole idea that they live in New Hampshire and he won’t have to pay any Connecticut estate tax; he’s got to pay Connecticut estate tax because he lived in Connecticut ... it’s gonna be millions of dollars.”

King wrote he only learned last month that Chakalos in 2011 had transferred the West Chesterfield home to a family trust benefiting only his daughters.

And six months before his death, Chakalos and his wife executed a “residential lease” of the same house with them as tenants.

King wrote that he thought Chakalos did this to establish a “record of residency” but it did not reflect that either one slept or ever lived here.

Chakalos’ death certificate was changed at a later date by a Connecticut medical examiner to read he was murdered not in the “decedant’s home” in Windsor, Conn. but at what was changed to the “other second residence.”

His obituary published in the Hartford (Conn) Courant said Chakalos was from Windsor, Conn., while the obituary given by the funeral home and published in the Union Leader said he was from Chesterfield, NH.

John LaPenna was Chakalos’ nephew whom he paid $6,000 a month to be his driver during the last two years of his life.

A Keene native, Chakalos told LaPenna it was his lifelong dream to build a palatial home in New Hampshire.

“Someday I’m going to build me a big mansion up on a hill, you know,” LaPenna said Chakalos told him.

LaPenna and Carman said Chakalos took day trips up to New Hampshire but said he rarely stayed overnight there.

“In fact his actual residence was in Connecticut, he had a more significant and lasting connection there and he never intended to permanently reside outside that state,” King concluded.

“Although counsel creatively argued that there is an old saying that a ‘man’s home is his castle,’ the evidence here demonstrates that John Chakalos’ castle was not his ‘home’ as the term is intended.”

klandrigan@unionleader.com