Tom Carvel was the creator of soft serve ice cream and one of the founding fathers of the franchise system in America. When his ice cream truck suffered a flat tire in New York in 1934, he sold his melting ice cream from a parking lot. Those humble beginnings led to the first soft-serve ice cream store and eventually grew into the Carvel ice cream chain with 850 locations. Carvel died in 1990 at age 84, with a fortune conservatively estimated at around $80 million. The legal fighting started soon thereafter. And it hasn't stopped yet.
The battles have passed through federal courts in three states, along with state courts in New York, Florida, Delaware, and even England (not New England ... England!). Reportedly, legal fees and commissions have already cost the Carvel financial legacy more than $28 million.
On one side was Pamela Carvel, Tom's niece. She helped Tom's widow, Agnes, through years of court battles until she passed in 1998 at age 89. In fact, the pair lived together in London -- trying to escape the heartache caused by years of fighting and seeking some peace for Agnes in her final years.
On the other side were two longtime employees of Tom Carvel -- former secretary Mildred Arcadipane and attorney Robert Davis. At least, they were fighting until they too passed away in (one in 2002 and the other shortly thereafter).
So what started the fighting? Both Tom and Agnes Carvel signed mutual wills agreeing to leave their money to trusts set up to benefit charity. Arcadipane and Davis were trustees of the trusts and two of the directors of the charitable foundation that was to manage the fortune. They had so much control they even cut off Agnes' money so that she did not have enough money to live on. They claimed they did it to protect her from the niece Pamela, who they felt was taking advantage of Agnes when she was not mentally competent.
Pamela and Agnes felt the move was calculated to stop their lawsuits trying to wrest control away from Arcadipane and Davis. And their position seemed to have some merit. In fact, the Attorney General of New York filed a lawsuit against Arcadipane and Davis for one million dollars and seeking their removal from the charitable foundation, based on improper spending and mismanagement. Because of it, the duo was forced to resign in 1996.
But that didn't end the fighting. Pamela and Agnes -- and then Pamela herself after Agnes died -- continued to fight the executors, trustees and the charitable foundation itself. The fighting culminated in a 2007 lawsuit in Florida.
In that case, Pamela asked to have Tom Carvel's body exhumed (dug up from his resting spot) so an autopsy could be performed. Why? She claimed that her uncle had been murdered. By (drum roll please) . . . Arcadipane and Davis! Apparently, Tom Carvel had discovered they had been embezzling millions from the Carvel corporation (according to Pamela). He was about to fire them, but he never had the chance. Instead he had a heart attack.
Pamela and a private investigator she hired believe that the pair had monkeyed with his heart medicine and ever caused the death certificate to be forged. Reportedly, they interviewed (on tape, no less) the doctor whose name appears on it and he said he didn't sign it! Carvel's body was buried very quickly, before the family considered an autopsy.
Yet, the Florida lawsuit failed. Why? Because Tom Carvel is buried in New York, not Florida. Pamela promised to try again, in New York, but to date she hasn't.
But she is continuing to fight. Despite having been removed as the Agnes Carvel estate executor, and even after she was ordered by a judge to stop trying to collect money on behalf of the Estate, she sued trying to collect for eight years of back rent that originally was owed to Agnes. The New York federal court judge in the case ruled last week that she had no legal authority to claim the money.
The judge pointed out that Pamela had gone to such great lengths to continue the legal fights that she even sued the state of New York, claiming that state employees conspired with attorneys and judges who were involved in the administration of the Carvel estate and trusts. She had alleged they committed fraud and were corrupt, covering up millions of dollars of embezzlement by those in charge of the Carvel fortune. So far, Pamela's efforts have seemed to have been for naught.
It's been 19 years since Tom Carvel died. Pamela seems determined to spend the rest of her life fighting in court to expose what she believes really happened. Reportedly, she says that she's going to continue "to go after the bastards" because she had nothing left and therefore had nothing to lose. These quotes, and a very detailed recitation of the entire story, appeared here on Portfolio.com (a very interesting read).
So how could this mess have been avoided? Tom and Agnes Carvel had wills, trusts and more. In other words, they did the proper estate planning.
Of course, choosing suitable executors and trustees certainly would have helped. Clearly, if Arcadipane and Davis had done their jobs properly, they never would have been sued and forced to resign by the New York attorney general. But, sometimes, no matter how good the planning was, fights happen.
Granted, fights don't usually last 19 years, pass through several states and even different continents, and involve claims of murder, but when family emotions rage unchecked, reason can go out the window. That's when it is absolutely essential for people to talk to a good probate litigation attorney to help.
Here's a place to go if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing to locate an experienced probate litigation lawyer and want some help finding a good one. Hopefully, you'll never need one.
But, if you do, rest assured that your situation can't ever turn as ugly as the one involving the Carvel family.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+