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Trusts & Undue Influence

Richard Mellon Scaife.jpg

Richard Mellon Scaife. Photo: Post-Gazette

A large-scale trust dispute has been brewing over the fortune of the deceased Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire scion of the Mellon dynasty and publisher of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Scaife died in Pennsylvania at age 82 last year on July 4th, and his estate and associated funds have been contested ever since by his two children, who were excluded from the major trusts designated in his will. And now the Allegheny County Court will have to examine an even more serious charge: was Scaife, already ailing in his battle with cancer, under undue influence when he signed his will in February of 2013?

Jennie and David Scaife, Scaife's children, filed suit in November of last year with the allegation that their father had improperly emptied out trusts intended for their well being. In addition to being a well-known philanthropist, Scaife was also committed to funding his newspaper; the Tribune-Review is said to have operated for two decades at a $700 million loss. A good portion of the cash used to keep the paper operating came from a trust set up by Scaife's mother in 1935, and while in 2005 it was said to hold $210 million, nine years later it was totally depleted.

Since the November 2014 filing, Jennie Scaife has brought forward a new charge: her father was subject to the undue influence of his attorney H. Yale Gutnick, who lists among his responsibilities chairman of the board for the Tribune-Review, trustee to family foundations, and executor of the estate. Jennie says Gutnick looked after his own interests by securing $660 million for the Tribune-Review in Scaife's will. Another $700 million was divided between the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Allegheny Foundation, but Scaife's two children were neither mentioned in the will nor allotted any funds or family heirlooms.

While it is usually quite difficult to prove undue influence, Jennie Scaife does provide an interesting detail in her petition: instead of authorizing his will with a full signature, Scaife could only initial the document with the assistance of his bodyguard, also an executive director at the Allegheny Foundation. Because Scaife was critically ill and under heavy medication, he "exhibited impairment of memory [and] impairment of intellectual functioning," which does bring into question the late billionaire's physical and mental state at the time of his signing the will and designating beneficiaries. Trusts are supposed hold the highest degree of inviolability, but when allegations of undue influence come into play, they deserve careful review.

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