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Relatives, caregivers battle over will

Those close to a conservationist question changes made to her multimillion-dollar will before she died.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- In life, Lisa von Borowsky seemed careful to avoid causing trouble, for people or any other living thing.

Ms. von Borowsky, who died last year at 97, was a kind and generous friend, according to people who knew her well. Her professional life was spent tending the vast gardens on Chinsegut Hill north of Brooksville for owners Col. Raymond and Margaret Robins; her main passion was enjoying and preserving nature.

"She was a very outstanding lady. She was a very outstanding conservationist and has been for most of her life," her old friend and fellow naturalist, Steve Fickett, said at the time of her death.

Since her death, however, this gentle woman -- or at least the millions of dollars she left behind -- has become the source of an ugly dispute.

Family members have challenged the legitimacy of her will, which excludes them and grants $750,000 and Ms. von Borowsky's personal possessions to a home health-care worker who knew her for only the last two years of her life.

The worker, Jodi Rhodes -- with the help of lawyers Dick McGee and Joe Mason -- insinuated herself into Ms. von Borowsky's life and turned her against her niece, nephews and old friends, those left out of the will said.

"The home health-care service and attorneys manipulated and influenced this dear lady into changing her former last will and testament for greed and the benefit of others," Dieter von Borowsky, a nephew from Texas, said in a recent e-mail to the Times.

Mason said Ms. von Borowsky had good reason to exclude the relatives. They rarely visited her, he said, "and the only time Dieter contacted her was, 'Please send me money,' and she got tired of it."

Ms. von Borowsky decided to exclude them from the will only after they backed an unsuccessful effort to have her declared incompetent in 2000, Mason said. "They made their bed, and now they're lying in it."

Dieter von Borowsky regrets being included in the competency hearing, which happened without his knowledge, he said. He also acknowledges that, because this effort was unsuccessful, he probably has only a slim chance of overturning the current will with the motion to invalidate it he has filed.

Still, he and several of Ms. von Borowsky's friends said, the facts are disturbing to anyone who cares about the rights of elderly people and their heirs.

"I don't care who ends up with the money. This is not right," said Betty Gibson, who lived next to Ms. von Borowsky starting in 1968.

"This poor lady was certainly taken advantage of. They walked in and took over, and she hardly had any say about anything."

The people who took over, she said, were McGee and Mason, who stood to make money off legal fees, and the home health-care company, Loving Care In-Home Services Inc., which has offices in Spring Hill and Inverness.

The story of how this happened began on Easter Sunday in 1999, Gibson said, when she checked on Ms. von Borowsky at her home on Lake Lindsey Road and discovered she had broken her leg.

Until then, Ms. von Borowsky had mostly lived independently, though Gibson drove her on errands, cooked some of her meals and helped manage her affairs. After Ms. von Borowsky returned from several weeks in the hospital and a nursing facility, Gibson realized she needed more assistance.

"She couldn't dress herself. She hadn't cooked in years," Gibson said. "It was obvious she needed round-the-clock care."

Gibson hired Loving Care, and Rhodes was soon assigned to help care for Ms. von Borowsky.

Gibson said she clashed with Rhodes instantly, partly because Rhodes was not a certified nursing assistant, as Gibson had requested of Loving Care.

During the next several months, Rhodes encouraged Ms. von Borowsky to become increasingly dependent on her, to the exclusion of Gibson and other Loving Care workers, said Marilyn Nuzzello, a former employee of the home health-care company.

"(Ms. von Borowsky) became very rude to me at times," Nuzzello said. "She wanted Jodi 24/7. That was very obvious. . . . I think Jodi was taking control very slowly to get some money from Lisa."

Rhodes, who no longer works at Loving Care, did not return telephone messages from the Times left at her house in Citrus County.

One Sunday in early 2000, Ms. von Borowsky was taken to McGee and Mason's office in Brooksville. She signed papers that relieved Gibson of her duties and replaced Ms. von Borowsky's longtime attorney, John Green Sr. of Ocala, with Mason and McGee.

That action changed Ms. von Borowsky's circumstances drastically, Gibson said.

Gibson was turned away when she tried to visit her friend, she said. Dieter von Borowsky said his and other relatives' letters went unanswered, and Rhodes refused to let them speak to Ms. von Borowsky on the telephone. And Nuzzello said McGee and Robert Tarr, the owner of Loving Care, became frequent visitors to von Borowsky's home.

Tarr did not respond to a Times telephone call to Loving Care offices. McGee, who Mason said has recently been ill, did not return a call to his home, though Mason said McGee never visited Ms. von Borowsky.

In June of 2000, another former health-care worker, Sheila Hall, filed a suit to have Ms. von Borowsky declared incompetent and to have a guardian named to handle her affairs.

Hall was out of town and unavailable for comment last week. She took that action, Gibson said, because she thought Ms. von Borowsky was helpless to resist Rhodes' and McGee's efforts to take control of her affairs.

Though Ms. von Borowsky was clearly confused at the time, Gibson said, the testimony of friends and relatives was overwhelmed in court by the expert witnesses called by Mason.

Mason said the results of the hearing were resounding. Not only did the judge rule against Hall's contention that Ms. Von Borowsky was incompetent, he specifically ruled that she was able to handle her own affairs.

The subsequent changes to her will, including the exclusion of her relatives, were based entirely on her wishes, Mason said.

"When her nephews and niece supported the filing of the competency hearing, she very definitely said, 'I want them out of the will,' " Mason said.

Ms. von Borowsky was never married, and her closest living relatives were Dieter von Borowsky; his sister, who lives in Wisconsin; and two other nephews who live in her native Germany.

Along with descendants of Mrs. Robins, they were named as the primary beneficiaries of the first will, which was written in 1994. Gibson was to receive $5,000, an amount Ms. von Borowsky later increased to $15,000.

Portions of the will were left unchanged. Ms. von Borowsky had long planned to leave the 270 acres where she lived to the Audubon Society, and to establish a $300,000 trust to pay for its care. That is in all versions of her will, as is an $8,000 gift to Fickett.

What changed dramatically was the fate of the remaining money, approximately $3-million.

In a version written days after the competency suit was filed, McGee and Mason produced a will that granted Rhodes $400,000. A trust established in December 2000 increased that to $750,000.

The same trust calls for most of the remaining money, about $2-million, to be split between Pasco-Hernando Community College and the University of Florida.

In April 2001, Ms. von Borowsky amended the will to give Rhodes "all household and personal property located in my home, guest house, shed, and/or garages."

She reaffirmed that gift in another document signed in September 2001. Dieter von Borowsky pointed out that that was a month before her death, the official cause of which was senile dementia.

"You can barely even read it," he said of her signature on the document.

He says that is only one aspect about the will that strikes him as suspect.

Tarr, the Loving Care owner, is listed as her personal representative. McGee's wife signed as a witness to her own husband's signature. Mason's longtime law partner, Daniel Merritt Sr., is the circuit judge hearing the motion to invalidate the will.

Mason said Merritt offered to recuse himself, and von Borowsky's lawyer, David Murphy of Dade City, declined. He also said everything about the wills is legal. The law does not forbid relatives from witnessing one another's signatures. And the law allows home health-care workers to receive money from estates as long as they do not exert undue influence, he said. In many cases, including this one, he said, it is the workers who show the most concern for the person.

There is also nothing in state regulations that forbids health-care companies from being named as beneficiaries, said Kim Reed, spokeswoman for the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

Legal or not, Gibson said, it is not right, partly because it clouds the memory of Ms. von Borowsky in the minds of the people who really loved her.

Ms. von Borowsky ate with her and her husband countless times, she said. And Gibson often visited her neighbor in the evenings to watch the deer in the field below her house and the birds that came to her many feeders.

"My mother died at a very early age, and Ms. von Borowsky kind of took up the slack," Gibson said. "This whole thing is just so sick."

-- Dan DeWitt can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com .

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