VALPARAISO — Since August 2018, the Jasper Newton Foundation has been in litigation against the Law office of Robert Monfort, Monfort himself, and his assistant Teri Hardin. Hardin became the legal guardian of a client of the law office, and after the client passed, she filed a will giving her the bulk of the estate valued at over a half million dollars. However, the foundation also had received a copy of a will leaving the estate to the foundation to be used as a scholarship fund.
When the Hardin will was sent to probate court, the foundation was not notified, and only learned of the will and Hardin’s involvement, along with Monfort as the attorney for the estate, after the will had been filed with the court. After it was discovered that a will, differing from the will the foundation had on file, a lawsuit was filed and accusations made of falsifying a will.
On Aug. 15, 2014, Rose Jennette Nagel signed an endowment fund agreement with the foundation leaving the majority of her estate to Saint Augustine Catholic School in Rensselaer and the foundation in equal amounts. The endowment fund, to be named the “Robert and Rose Jennette Nagel Endowment Fund” with the understanding there would be an annual distribution in equal amounts to the catholic school and the Jasper County Community Fund with an emphasis on fine arts and music.
The will Hardin filed with the courts, left only $100,000 to the foundation, $1,000 to the Jasper County Animal Shelter, and the rest to Hardin. In its suit, the foundation, accuses Hardin and Monfort of falsifying a will stating there are differences in the signature from the foundation paperwork and the probated will presented to the courts.
Both Hardin and Monfort have denied these allegations. Since the lawsuit was filed, there have been numerous orders and filings through special judge, Mary Harper, who presides in the Porter County courts. Harper accepted the case after both Jasper County judges recused themselves due to conflict of interest.
The latest orders from Harper remove Hardin as the personal representative of the estate as well as ordering the estate to be supervised. It had been filed as an unsupervised estate, and after the suit was filed in August 2018, the money in the estate was frozen until the dispute is resolved. According to Foundation Attorney Zachery Kester, the case will most likely not be settled until 2021.
Before the estate funds were placed on hold, Hardin had paid her attorney a $25,000 fee from the funds, for which the judge has reprimanded her. Due to this and other reasons, Harper removed her as the estate’s personal representative on Dec. 5 of this year. On Nov. 18, Harper revoked the unsupervised administration of the estate, and Hardin was ordered to release an accounting of the estate’s funds and the use of funds before the freeze placed the money on hold.
The foundation claims that nearly $300,000 of the funds was distributed to Hardin and to Monfort before the funds were frozen, including the payment to her attorney from these funds.
Harper points out in her order some inconsistencies including Monfort’s initial admission that he had failed to obtain specific waivers before the will was filed. He also admitted Nagel was charged excessive fees that “had the effect of depleting estate assets.” He later claimed these admissions were “scrivener’s errors,” basically clerical errors, and asked to amend his answers to deny both of these claims.
Judge Harper also denied him this request stating he had waited too long to do so (nine months).
In her findings in the order revoking Hardin as personal representative of the estate, Harper wrote, “The moment Hardin had notice of claims against her, her duty became marshaling and preserving assets until further order of this court.” She went on to say Hardin’s payment of the retainer to her attorney out of the estate’s assets is a “breach of duty” to the estate.
Harper also refused to seal the accounting of the estate as well. In the same order, she wrote the motions to seal the accounting were “fundamentally defective” and none of the motions followed required procedures. She wrote Hardin also failed to present evidence that there would be any “actionable prejudices” if the accounting were made public.
In Harper’s order denying Monfort’s request to amend his original responses to the allegations, she states he “acted in bad faith in waiting so long to seek leave to amend.” She writes that Monfort filed his answer to the foundation’s allegations in October 2018. Around two months later, the foundation’s attorney asked Monfort to explain why no waivers of notice or consents were obtained, and why excessive fees were charged to Nagel and the estate; however, Monfort did not file his request to amend those answers until August 2019.
She writes, “By then, the foundation and Hardin were engaged in a discovery dispute involving, among other things, the fees Monfort admitted were excessive.”
She wrote he did not offer a reason for waiting so long to request to amend his responses. “Rather, it appears that he sat on his pleading — for over nine months — until it became clear that he would have to amend it to avoid addressing the admissions.”
She said he only needed to change two responses and such a minor task shouldn’t have taken nine months. “That, combined with the timing of Monfort’s motion, leads this court to conclude that he acted with undue delay and in bad faith,” she wrote.
In denying his motion would defeat justice, Harper stated the foundation didn’t “ambush” him with a last minute “sneak attack,” but that it had made him aware of the admissions two months after his response was filed with the court. “Yet knowing this, he did not seek to amend until almost a year later. He thus is not an ‘unsuspecting but well-intentioned litigant,’” Harper wrote.
A date of Feb. 4, 2020, has been set for both sides to submit information as to their choice of personal representative for the estate. The order states both Hardin and the foundation “should present only prospects who are highly-qualified, cost-effective and entirely disinterested.”