Peter Vieth//June 30, 2014
Peter Vieth//June 30, 2014//
A will contest with an international flavor was resolved in a Henrico County courtroom last month when a judge concluded that a formally executed will offered by a widow, backed by two witnesses, was just “an elaborate fake.”
Henrico Circuit Judge Catherine C. Hammond decided that – considering the “preposterous circumstances” surrounding the widow’s will – a photocopy of a handwritten will with no witness signatures took precedence over the original of the typed will with all the formalities.
Hammond based her ruling in part on a recently adopted Virginia law allowing probate of nonconforming wills if there is clear and convincing evidence of the testator’s intent.
She also relied on expert testimony that the will proffered by the widow was created after her husband’s death.
Strong family ties
Born in Crete, Nick Hlouverakis had come to the United States, gained citizenship and prospered. His estate was worth about $2.5 million, according to Hammond’s account and a lawyer involved in the case.
Nick lived in Henrico County with his wife, Vera, a Serbian national. Many family members lived nearby, including a niece, Maria Palesis, and her husband; Nick’s brother and sister; and a nephew, Emmanuel Hlouverakis.
Maria managed Nick’s rental properties, collected rents and was his attorney-in-fact and co-owner of Nick’s bank account. Nick remained mentally sharp, however, keeping close track of his own expenses in spiral notebooks. He even noted his purchase of a pack of cigarettes in November 2012, the month he died.
Nick had married Vera – his former housekeeper – in 2002, and both agreed to waive all inheritance rights. Vera explicitly gave up any claim on Nick’s augmented estate in a prenuptial agreement. It was Vera’s fifth marriage.
Nick was 84 years old in 2011 when he decided to write his will, according to evidence cited by Hammond. He and Vera were planning a long visit to Serbia, Vera’s homeland.
In the will, Nick directed the distribution of his assets to his family members and left nothing to Vera, in accordance with their agreement.
Nick’s one-page handwritten will was dated March 26, 2011. Nick signed it at the bottom, but there were no other signatures. He took it to the home of his 90-year-old brother and explained the provisions to family members gathered for a farewell lunch.
Someone suggested the will might be more official and legible if it were typed, so nephew Emmanuel did the typing. After the will was typed, and several copies signed by Nick, the original handwritten will was left lying on a kitchen table.
“Nobody thought the original holographic will had any significance at that point,” said S. Keith Barker, lawyer for niece Maria Palesis. The handwritten will was put aside and forgotten for the moment.
That night, Nick and Vera attended a family dinner at Maria’s home. “I have a will,” he told her and presented her with one of the typed and signed wills.
The next day, Nick and Vera left for Serbia. Nick never returned.
Family members grew concerned as months went by. Communications purportedly from Nick aroused suspicions, according to Maria’s allegations in the case. Then, in the fall of 2012, there was no further word from Nick at all.
In January 2013, one of Nick’s neighbors called Maria to say someone was moving furniture out of Nick’s house. Maria found Vera at the house. After some evasion, Vera told her that Nick had died, according to Maria’s account.
In Nick’s house that day, Maria and her husband found the photocopy of Nick’s handwritten will. The original never turned up.
“They never could find it,” Barker said.
A Serbian death certificate showed Nick had died on Nov. 29, 2012.
Vera produced a will apparently executed with all the formalities in Serbia on Sept. 9, 2012. Vera said Nick wanted the will to be “like a present” for her. It left three properties, stock and cash to Vera, and it included criticism of relatives who were disinherited.
Vera explained that she and Nick went through a lengthy process to prepare the document in Serbia, in part because she could not read or write English and Nick did not speak Serbian.
Vera testified Nick made notes in English which she changed to Serbian and then presented to a certified court interpreter with instructions to prepare a will in English. The interpreter said he never met Nick.
Two attesting witnesses claimed under oath to have witnessed Nick signing the new will and said they all signed in the presence of one another. If unchallenged, that procedure would make the will valid under Virginia law, Hammond said.
New will is challenged
When the evidence came in at a two-day bench trial in April, however, Hammond found reason to question the authenticity of Vera’s will.
“It is clear from the evidence that the 2012 Will is an elaborate fake. There are so many preposterous circumstances undermining Vera’s case,” Hammond wrote.
A forensic expert examined the interpreter’s computer files and – using metadata in a Word document – determined the 2012 will was created after Nick’s death.
The will itself had flaws, Hammond said. Although Vera testified Nick had checked the will carefully, names of family members were misspelled. References to amounts in bank accounts were erroneous, despite Nick’s fastidious recording of his finances.
A Serbian housekeeper who stood to benefit under Vera’s proffered will nevertheless undermined its authenticity. In a written deposition taken through the U.S. Embassy in Serbia, she denied the widow’s claim that she had witnessed Nick sign the new will.
Hammond also found Vera’s testimony to be contradictory and evasive. The judge concluded the will was created after Nick’s death.
“It is somewhat astonishing that the two attesting witnesses would give false testimony, but there you have it,” Hammond said.
Vera then challenged the copy of Nick’s handwritten will, but Hammond said three disinterested witnesses had testified that it was Nick’s handwriting and signature. The will written out by Nick before leaving for Serbia was the controlling document, under Hammond’s decision.
Hammond found no cause to question the presumption that the original had been lost, clearing the way for the copy to be admitted to probate.
Hammond even allowed the typed version of that will to be admitted under the 2012 version of Va. Code § 64.2-404, Virginia’s version of a uniform probate code. Hammond said the typed will – with three witnesses testifying to the signature – met the statute’s clear and convincing standard.
Hammond denied Maria’s requests for an accounting of Vera’s expenditures after Nick’s death and also denied Maria’s claim for attorney’s fees.
Hammond’s May 29 opinion is Palesis v. Hlouverakis (VLW 014-8-062).
Vera was represented by Richmond lawyer Kevin W. Motley, who did not respond to a request for comment.