STERLING – Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Gordon Atcheson found the story about how a codicil to the will of the late Hays millionaire Earl O. Field came to be “unusual.”
It was Hays attorney Donald Hoffman’s client Wanda Oborny who laid out the story, and Hoffman allowed it was unusual. “But I don’t know that it was suspicious,” he added.
On Tuesday afternoon, appeals of two district court rulings related to the Field estate came before three members of the Court of Appeals. Judges Kathryn Gardner, Michael Buser and Atcheson heard oral arguments during a session conducted on the Sterling College campus.
The appellate court hopes to issue a written decision in 60 to 90 days. The two actions that have been appealed and combined into one case are:
-In early 2016, Kansas Senior Judge William “Buck” Lyle ruled that a 2010 Field will – not the codicil Oborny discovered that gave half the $20-million-plus estate to her – was the valid last will and testament.
-Later in 2016, Kansas Senior Judge Jack Burr ruled that Oborny’s legal expenses – nearly $1 million – should be covered by money from the Field estate.
The valid Field document left the bulk of the estate to the Fort Hays State University Foundation. One of attorneys, Coy Martin, argued against paying Oborny’s legal fees from those funds.
“The attorney’s rights are derivative of his client’s rights,” Martin said. “It’s to his client that Mr. Hoffman must look for his reimbursement,” Martin said. The court does not want to reward folks for taking marginal cases, he said.
Oborny worked for Field, a widower without children. Shortly before he died in 2013, he allegedly visited a car dealership in Hays and while there, friends of Oborny, Steve and Kathy Little, witnessed him signing the codicil that made Oborny the main beneficiary. Receiving smaller slices in the codicil were the FHSU Foundation and Field’s longtime attorney Joseph Jeter.
“Isn’t that really weird, at best?” Atcheson said to Hoffman.
“He’s 98 years old,” Hoffman said. Field was familiar with wills and drafting language, he said, and he didn’t have a lot of friends. Jeter had testified that it appeared to be Field’s signature on the codicil, Hoffman said. Also, Hoffman said, Field had given about $800,000 in money and gifts to Oborny over five to six years, suggesting a pattern of generosity to her.
“What we’re hearing today is an attempt to rehash the arguments,” Martin said, likening Hoffman’s comments to “another closing argument.”
“I don’t believe we have the burden of proving fraud, but I think we proved it,” Martin said. “This was a cooked-up deal by Wanda Oborny,” he said.
Atcheson pointed out that Lyle believed FHSU Foundation’s experts who challenged the validity of the typed and signed codicil, over the expert testimony Hoffman enlisted.
The court found the codicil Oborny presented to her attorney Hoffman was a forgery, but did not find Oborny guilty of a crime. “There was never any finding that Oborny did this in bad faith,” Hoffman told the judges.
If the Court of Appeals affirms the forgery, what does that do to the attorney fees, Acheson asked at one point. Gardner observed that one judge ruled the codicil was a forgery, but the second judge found the probate case had been prosecuted in good faith.
“It was uncomfortable and it was awkward,” Hoffman said, that separate judges handled the probate case and the legal fees matter.
“Mr. Hoffman is a very nice guy,” Martin said, but “we’re talking a lot of scholarships.”
The Field bequest to FHSU Foundation was earmarked for scholarships. Full coverage – tuition, fees, books, room and board - for one year for a student living at FHSU amounts to about $15,000, according to the FHSU Foundation. Burr’s ruling needs to be reversed, Martin told the Court of Appeals.
Oborny did not appear for the oral arguments, which was not unusual.
She currently faces felony charges in federal court stemming from the codicil. Wichita attorney Sal Intagliata with the law firm Monnat and Spurrier is representing her. The case is slated for trial in 2018.
Buser and Atcheson described Hoffman as an attorney of good faith.