The Stephen Hilbert family is well known in Indiana. Hilbert founded insurance giant Conseco, which he ran until he was forced out because he owed the company hundreds of millions of dollars. When the company sued Hilbert to collect the giant debt, he tried to hide behind a series of trusts to shelter his fortune. Our book, Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, includes the Hilbert story to highlight what trusts are not intended to be used for.
But now Stephen Hilbert and his family are in the news for a different reason. Hilbert's mother-in-law, Germaine "Suzy" Tomlinson, died under very questionable circumstances on September 28, 2008 at age 74.
Her death was ruled an accident. Hilbert and his wife aren't so sure. Tomlinson was found fully dressed, face down in her bathtub, where she had drowned after a late night of drinking at a night club. [See picture which reportedly was taken the night before she died]
Here's where it gets really interesting ... there was a 15 million dollar life insurance policy on Tomlinson's life. That's a big policy! And who was the beneficiary named to receive this fortune? It wasn't any of her family members.
Instead, the $15 million was left to a trust Tomlinson had created. While she had told the insurance company that the policy was purchased to benefit Hilbert's wife and other family members, the actual beneficiary, through her trust, was a business called Carlson Media Group.
The company is run by a 36-year-old man named JB Carlson. He was not only a social friend of Tomlinson, but he was the last person to see her alive. He says he drove her home from the bar because she was too drunk to drive and he left her (alive and well, he says) in the living room of her house.
The insurance company on the hook for the $15 million isn't buying all this. They sued Carlson and his company to invalidate the insurance policy, saying it was obtained by fraud and lacked an "insurable interest". This means that beneficiary is not a family member and has no other close relationship to the person who died which would have justified the policy. This legal requirement prevents strangers or acquaintances from buying policies on people as a twisted type of investing.
Carlson says the policy was legitimate, because Tomlinson was a "key man" for his company. Indeed, that can be a valid reason for a policy -- companies purchase insurance for owners or other key members of their businesses all the time.
But, again, there are suspicious facts. The policy paperwork indicated that it was obtained for estate planning, not to protect the business. And the financial information submitted for Tomlinson said she was worth $46.7 million -- nearly $40 million of which was from stock in Carlson Media. Carlson admits that the true value of that stock was nowhere near $40 million.
In fact, documents uncovered by the insurance company show that Tomlinson had very few assets and her annual income was less than $17,000.
So who paid the large premiums for this insurance policy? Carlson's company, of course. But it had to take out a substantial loan to pay the annual premiums. When that loan was set to come due, it tried to refinance the loan, but the refinance efforts fell through. As a result, the company was about to be in default.
In fact, the loan was due only two days after Tomlinson died. So it seems her death occurred just in time for Carlson's business. At least, it would have if the insurance company had paid the policy without investigating what happened.
And, of course, when that company discovered these questionable circumstances, it sued rather than pay the money. And now Hilbert's wife and her siblings have joined the lawsuit saying that the money should be turned over to them, as their mother really intended.
They claim that Carlson and others concocted this fraud to take advantage of an unsophisticated elderly woman.
And it just may have ended in murder.
The lawsuit is scheduled for a jury trial in October of this year. If the case doesn't settle beforehand, it promises to be a doozy.
Whether or not Tominlson died accidentally, there is no question that someone took advantage of her. Elderly women with little income or assets shouldn't be anywhere near a 15 million dollar life insurance policy. Why this particular situation may seem unusual, scams targeted at seniors are far too common.
Here are some warnings signs of financial abuse and exploitation families should watch out for.
Many families don't want to pry into the financial affairs of their elderly loved ones for fear of offending them. Certainly Hilbert's wife wishes she had done so.
Families can share stories like this one with parents and grandparents to break the ice and open the conversation to protect aging loved ones from scams.
Posted by: Andrew W. Mayoras and Danielle B. Mayoras, co-authors of Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founders 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. Andrew and Danielle are husband and wife attorneys, professional speakers and consultants across the country.Follow us on Google+