Probate fight over Southington farm continues (CT)
In a nearly empty courtroom in Hartford on Monday, a half-dozen lawyers continued to fight over the dying wishes of a Southington woman who wanted to give her farm to the man who helped her care for the place for decades.
Incredibly, Sam Manzo, the caretaker, is still the loser in the Smoron Farm controversy. He lives in an unheated trailer on a farm he was supposed to inherit three years ago.
Instead of the probate court system making sure Manzo inherited the farm – what Josephine Smoron explicitly stated in her 2004 will – the controversy drags on, bouncing about dreary courtrooms, waiting for a judge to take charge and right a monumental wrong.
“My client is in desperate need to have this go forward,” Eliot Gersten, one of Manzo’s lawyers, told Superior Court Judge William H. Bright on Monday morning, complaining that bills aren’t getting paid. “This delay is hurting my client. He is living without heat.”
The case has landed in Judge Bright’s courtroom because the man appointed as conservator for Smoron, Southington lawyer John Nugent, has refused to step aside and admit his error. Nugent still controls two trusts that he set up in 2009 — unbeknownst to the dying Smoron or Manzo — that contain the estate’s assets.
The plan might have gone unchallenged if Manzo hadn’t complained to court authorities, who eventually ruled that Nugent abused his position as conservator. The Southington probate judge who appointed him, Bryan Meccariello, was censured by the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct for allowing Nugent to set up the trusts, which circumvent Smoron’s will. Meccariello did not run for re-election in 2010.
The trusts remain, and efforts to restore Manzo’s inheritance have stalled.
Nugent “knew that Ms. Smoron had a will that left her estate to [Manzo],” the Statewide Grievance Committee concluded earlier this year, declaring that Nugent “sought to intentionally deceive and defraud Ms. Smoron.” The panel, which had no power to overturn creation of the trusts, found that Nugent sought to “develop a mechanism that would give him control over Ms. Smoron’s estate after her death and allow him to determine who would inherit her estate.”
Despite this, Nugent is fighting attempts to resolve the mess created when Judge Meccariello ignored or overlooked Josephine Smoron’s will and allowed Nugent to take the estate’s assets and place them in the trusts, effectively disinheriting Manzo. Also joining the fight is Richard P. Weinstein, lawyer for a Southington developer who signed an agreement with Nugent in the fall of 2008 — while Smoron was still alive — to buy the farm. Upon Smoron’s death, money from the sale of the property was to be distributed to three area Catholic churches.
The contract, which Manzo and Smoron were never told about, was never approved by probate court.
Nugent, in a court brief, argues that Manzo had failed to take care of the farm and “the creation of the trusts were necessary to protect that property.” Selling off the farm had to be done in case Smoron, who was in her early 90s at the time, required “long-term hospitalization,” Nugent said in the court papers.
Smoron died in June 2009, a month after creation of the trusts that gave Nugent control of the old farmer’s estate. Nugent, by the way, never spoke to Smoron, an eccentric woman who treated the cows as pets on her dilapidated farm off I-84 near Queen Street in Southington.
Judge Bright, who has the power to return the entire estate back to where it was before Nugent created the trusts, is faced with sorting out what started out as a very simple matter: an elderly Polish farmer wanted to leave her farm — and particularly her beloved cows — to Manzo, her rough-hewn caretaker.
“I really want to … get this matter resolved,” Bright said at one point during Monday’s hearing. “We are spinning our wheels.”
Tuesday, Nugent’s lawyer will begin presenting evidence and calling witnesses in a misguided effort to defend his actions and keep the farm out of Manzo’s hands. The basic facts that I have been reciting for more than three years remain the same.
Josephine Smoron’s final wishes were ignored. Sam Manzo’s inheritance was taken from him. Anybody with a will ought to be scared out of their wits.
Probate Fight Over Southington Farm Continues
Farm Was Supposed To Go To Caretaker
November 19, 2012
The Hartford Courant