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Estate Litigation Drama: $3.5 Million to the Gardener?

Gardener Wins Millions.jpg

A recent estate fight underway in both Marin and Sonoma counties is making for easy headlines with made-for-TV drama. The daughter of deceased Marin resident Constance Doolittle, who passed away at age 72 in February of 2014, is contesting her will, and for seemingly good reason. As it turns out, Doolittle allocated $3.5 million of her $8.5 million fortune to the gardener, Juan Ramon Amador of San Rafael. Daughter Susan Doolittle and her sister, meanwhile, were left with $500,000 each. Amador, 53, might very well be at the top of his profession, though we can't help thinking that $3.5 million, almost half the estate, is a hefty reward for someone who was officially just the gardener.

Susan Doolittle, a resident of San Francisco, has now filed suit in Sonoma County against Exchange Bank of Santa Rosa, the trustee of her mother's estate funds. She's alleging that Amador exercised undue influence over Constance Doolittle, who was twenty years older than the 53-year-old gardener and suffered from dementia. It's reported that aside from gardening for Constance, Amador also convinced her to invest thousands in coffee plantations back in his native Nicaragua. Susan claims that the married Amador also led her mother to believe they were in a romantic relationship. Yet that litigation is costly to all beneficiaries of the disputed Doolittle estate, since attorney's fees are being paid right from the estate itself. Susan Doolittle had attempted to freeze payments to Exchange Bank's lawyers from her mother's trust account until she established proof of elder abuse, but a panel of three judges from the California First District Court of Appeal ruled that the bank can continue using the funds to cover legal costs.

There's another twist in the story that appears to back the Court of Appeal judges' decision. The late Constance Doolittle likely foresaw that her daughters, who were estranged from her in her final years, might challenge the will. The panel noted that there was "no logical reason why she would have wanted her representatives to be compensated less generously." In addition, Constance went to a psychologist for an evaluation to show she was mentally competent in making all her financial and estate planning decisions that would be enshrined in her trust, including other gifts to friends and caregivers. So as it stands, litigation will grind on in Marin and Sonoma counties, with Exchange Bank enjoying its legal defense, courtesy of the Doolittle estate.

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