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Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

The Case of the Family Feud

Sisters at odds after one accuses the other of mismanagement and fraud.

The background

The Alter family was unraveling. It all started when 80-year-old Zal Alter set up a trust for his two adult daughters, Susan and Wendy. He had inherited valuable real estate in San Francisco, where the family lived. His attorney suggested setting up the trust as part of his estate plan.

But soon after the Alter family trust was established in 1989, Zal’s health, on the decline for more than a year, grew worse. His wife, Jane, called their older daughter, Susan, saying that Zal was not balancing the books. Jane, who was 78 at the time, felt she couldn’t help Zal anymore and asked Susan to take over.

Susan arrived at her parents’ house to find bills and papers all over the floor, not terribly unusual because it was tax season. But while tackling the chaos, Susan found a letter from her father’s accountant. It said he was going out of business and could no longer handle her father’s account. Susan stepped forward, rolled up her sleeves and began helping Zal pay bills and manage the family company on a regular basis. The business consisted of two properties left to Zal and his sister by their father. One property was leased for commercial space, the other had both apartments and commercial rentals. The properties were valued at more than a million dollars and provided ongoing income.

Meanwhile, Jane was at the end of her rope. She and Zal were at odds. According to court documents, relatives described Zal as domineering, argumentative and abusive; Jane was described as kind and loving, someone who liked to do things for other people but who could not put up with Zal any longer. After 50 years of marriage, Jane left, asking Susan to help her move out. Around the same time, the Alters' younger daughter, Wendy, also divorced. She moved closer to her mother, who had moved into a condominium by herself. Jane began to grow increasingly irritated with Zal and she worried about her financial security.

Later, in the summer of 1990, based on advice from his estate attorney, Zal asked Susan to prepare checks as family gifts. He gave each daughter $20,000. Susan’s two children and Wendy’s two children each received $10,000. Zal also gave $10,000 to Susan’s husband, a move that would soon spark a family war. Wendy promptly complained to her mother about the extra money that went to Susan’s family. Wendy did not understand why she should receive less just because she was divorced.

In mid-September of the same year, Zal fell and became incapacitated. As a result, he gave Susan more responsibility for the family finances, including the authority to sign checks.

Weeks later, Wendy met with her parents’ attorneys and accused Susan of mismanaging the family finances. Susan, about to leave on a three-week European holiday, was not there to defend herself. The two sisters had never been close, but Wendy’s accusations created a tension that would never heal. When Susan returned from Europe, she found that Wendy and her mother were accusing her not only of mishandling the family’s money but also of committing fraud.

Susan had been close with her mother. “Every day, we talked,” Susan said last month in an interview. She made sure that Jane’s money from the trust arrived on time, even arranging an extra amount when Susan was going on vacation to be sure her mother was not left short of funds. But now Jane was turning against her daughter. “I was devastated,” Susan said. “I went to get counseling. It was horrible.”

In March 1991 Jane made the first overtly hostile move aimed directly at Susan. Jane wrote a new will, which included Wendy and both daughters’ children but excluded Susan’s husband and Susan herself. Jane also named Wendy as executor of her estate. Zal, now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, was not told.

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