"Well, this woman stole $800,000 right out of the estate," says Worley who successfully sued the executive of the estate for $2.5 million and recovered the money for the rightful heirs.
Like many Romanian expats living in the Houston area, Sandor Szabo trusted housekeeper Maria Dehelean. She had keys to her clients' houses and was well regarded in the community. With no relatives nearby, Szabo decided to make her the executrix of his estate and trusted she would do the right thing when the time came.
"When Sandor Szabo passed away, Maria Dehelean found out that her employer had over $800,000 in bank accounts," says Worley."She liquidated the accounts and sent a few thousand dollars to his two brothers in Romania and told them that's all there was."
"She took $200,000 dollars in cash from one of the accounts," says Worley, a veteran probate lawyer from the firm of McDonald Worley in Houston. "It took the bank a week to gather that much cash. She bought a house for her daughter and a brand new Toyota Forerunner and registered it in her daughter's name."
Worley believes that Dehelean was literally banking on the fact that Szabo's only relatives, two brothers in Romania, were far away and spoke no English. And she might have gotten away with it all had the brothers not decided to contact attorneys in Houston.
Dehelean's daughter agreed to return the house and the car to the estate, but Maria Dehelean is nowhere to be found, and a bench warrant has been issued for her arrest. She has assets in Houston that will be liquidated to pay punitive damages to the estate.
Worley says there's a lesson, loud and clear, about estate planning.
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"And definitely, don't make them unsupervised executor if they are just a lady who cleans your house," says Worley.
"Lawyers will sometimes advise people to name executors independent because it is cheaper. But unless it is a spouse, a child you trust or a bank—don't make them independent," he says.
"Yes, they will have to get court approval for everything, and yes it will be a little more expensive, but won't run the risk of them taking off with the money."
Donald Worley is a partner with McDonald Worley in Houston, Texas. He earned his JD at the University of Houston. The firm's practice areas include probate law, personal injury, wrongful death, guardianship and probate litigation.