Pampered Pet Dispute

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 9:42am

Attorney accused of "deception and subterfuge" after drafting will that leaves huge fortune to woman's pets, with his girlfriend as caretaker.

A dying woman's decision to create a $1 million dollar trust to care for her dogs is the subject of a lengthy legal dispute, and sharp criticism for a north Georgia lawyer.

In November 2007, Kay Elaine Johnston of Elberton was dying of lung cancer.

She created a will and trust, leaving the bulk of her considerable estate for the care of her 50 cats and six dogs.

The trust named Kyria Wilhite of Elberton to care for the animals, receiving $50,000 a year plus expenses and "reasonable compensation" for her services caring for Johnston's pets.

After Johnston's December 2007 death, Wilhite also received Johnson's home and seven acres of property, although the two had known each other only a couple of months.

According to a probate judge who reviewed the will and trust, attorney Robert Johnson, who at the time was in a relationship with Wilhite, used "deception and subterfuge" to influence the way Johnston divided her money.

"I don't like that power-monster that can walk all over you and take advantage of you," said Johnston's cousin, Carol Phillips, who is disputing the will.

Probate Judge Susan Tate ruled that when Kay Johnston agreed to the will and trust, she was suffering from a "weakened and fluctuating mental condition" due to the cancer that had spread to her skull and possibly her brain.

After hearing testimony at a lengthy trial, Judge Tate ruled that Kay Johnston was "substantially and unduly influenced" by attorney Robert Johnson.

The Judge found Johnson used "deception, subterfuge, and the power of subtle suggestions" in dealing with the dying woman.

In her ruling, Judge Tate wrote that Johnson "substantially influenced major provisions of the will and trust, all the while failing to disclose his intimate involvement with Ms. Wilhite, the primary beneficiary."

Johnson declined an on-camera interview, but said he disagrees with the judge's ruling.

He issued a brief written statement:

"I was not a party to the trial, but only a witness," Johnson wrote. "I expect the case to be heard in Elbert Superior Court, and would only want to make my statement at trial."

The case is expected to proceed to a jury trial.

Johnson did say that Carol Phillips had filed a complaint against him with the Georgia Bar Association, but the complaint had been dismissed.

Jim Potts, who is representing Phillips, said Carol Phillips filed her complaint before the probate judge's ruling, and would likely file again.
 

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