Siblings battle in court over fate of forested ‘piece of heaven’ on Lake Pend Oreille
Tue., Dec. 20, 2016
Kathy Lefor’s grandson, Carson Debban, fishes from a dock on the family property in July 2015. (COURTESY OF KATHY LEFOR)
Jeanne Green, who will turn 93 on Jan. 1, always said she wanted the 400 acres of lakefront, forested property on Lake Pend Oreille that her family homesteaded in 1902 to be conserved as-is and remain in the family.
An environmentalist, she donated Pearl Island, a 12-acre island near Hope where her great-uncle Henry homesteaded, to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in 2009 as a sanctuary for nesting eagles.
But now the $15 million family property at Camp Bay on the western shore of Lake Pend Oreille is slated for development and in a dispute among her children.
The Idaho Supreme Court will decide if her oldest son exerted undue influence on her and her late husband, Ralph, to persuade them to cut four of their five children out of their wills and leave everything to the son who favored developing, rather than preserving, the property.
The property was described in court as “a little piece of heaven up on the lake in northern Idaho.”
The oldest son, Jim Green, contends that his brothers Randy Green and Gary Green and sister Kathy Lefor angered their elderly parents by questioning their competency, prompting the parents to disinherit them in 2012. Their father died in 2013. But the undue influence lawsuit filed by the three siblings notes that the changes that left everything to Jim also cut out their youngest sister, Sheila, who is developmentally disabled and was never involved in any of the disputes.
“There is nothing in this case to say a natural result upon the parents’ death is Jim, $15 million; Sheila zero,” attorney Greg Silvey told the Idaho Supreme Court. “If the parents were really just disinheriting their kids because the kids treated them horribly, Sheila would not have been disinherited.”
John Magnuson, Jim’s attorney, told the justices, that documents “unequivocally” show what Ralph and Jeanne Green wanted.
“There’s no problem explaining, I believe, why Gary, Kathy and Randy got the short straw, he said. “Sheila’s got her own argument, these people don’t. And these are the people here who are asking that the testamentary device be set aside in their favor.”
According to documents filed in court, Jim had long been estranged from his parents after he proposed development of the property in the 1970s. In 2009, he announced plans to retire on the property and help care for his aging parents, a move his siblings supported.
By that time, the property ownership had been placed in a family corporation and a trust. Initially, Sheila was given shares in the family corporation, but then the family found out those assets could endanger the public assistance she lived on in Oregon, so they were removed. A 1992 federal law allowed disabled people to maintain public benefits if their assets are placed in a special-needs trust, so when the family trust was created in 1998, Sheila got a full one-fifth share with that restriction.
The family corporation made its money through logging on the property and leasing 16 sites for private cabins. Cabin owners built and owned their structures but leased the ground underneath.
Jeanne and Ralph Green moved to the property in 1969 when her parents died and they inherited it, including the original log home where Jeanne was born. Their kids and grandkids spent most of their summers there.
When Jim returned to the property, he sought a low-cost, long-term lease for his own cabin, but his siblings were concerned that would endanger the tax status of the family company. The dispute escalated, and the three siblings hired a lawyer in 2011 who sent a letter to the cabin-site lessees warning them not to sign any new long-term leases, as there were questions about competency and other issues relating to the operations of the family company.
“Ralph and Jeanne remained visibly upset and angered that three of their children, Gary, Kathy and Randy, were interfering with their relationships with their neighbors and tenants and challenging their competency,” Magnuson wrote in court documents.
In April 2011, Jim sent an email to Steve Klatt, whom he had hired as a property manager and consultant to the family corporation, saying he was distressed that his dad seemed to want to “forgive and forget” the dispute.
“The implication is I could end up with some pernicious people as partners,” he wrote. “In fact, I can hear them sharpening their flaying knives in anticipation of getting control.”
Klatt emailed back, “Allowing this episode to be water under the bridge someday before too long does not mean a significant effort is not made right now to prevent these three yahoos from ever having control of the family property.”
At a shareholder meeting in September 2011, Gary quizzed all the shareholders, including himself and his parents, “on their history of dementia,” according to Magnuson’s court filings. “Ralph concluded that he did not think that Gary, Kathy and Randy were fit to be on the board,” Magnuson wrote.
In 2011, with the assistance of various attorneys, Ralph and Jeanne amended the trust. First, without notifying Gary, they replaced him with Jim as the successor trustee to them. Then, they changed the trust to say its assets would be divided equally among their five children if a conservation easement was approved for the property within a year, but if it wasn’t, the entire estate would be divided between three charities.
A conservation easement was negotiated, but only Ralph, Jim and Randy were asked to sign it. Kathy and Randy objected, arguing that all family members should sign it, especially their mother. After being advised there was dissension in the family over the conservation easement, the Clark Fork Pend Oreille Conservancy declined to enter into the easement.
Two days later, Ralph and Jeanne executed a final amendment to the trust, leaving everything to Jim, “because Ralph and Jeanne were worried about the other children and thought that Jim was best able to follow his parents’ wishes,” Magnuson wrote.
Concerned that their elderly parents were being manipulated, Kathy, Gary and Randy filed a lawsuit against the family corporation and initiated a guardian and conservatorship action in 2012 against their mother, contending she needed someone independent appointed to look out for her interests.
Magnuson maintains that action meant they were trying to get Jeanne removed from her home; the siblings say it was intended to get her help so she could remain in her home. A court determined Jeanne Green was competent and didn’t need a conservator. But two months later, she was hospitalized, declared incapacitated, and moved to a Sandpoint care facility; she never went home.
Kathy said the siblings had to hire a private investigator to find out where their mother was, because Jim wouldn’t tell them.
The shareholder lawsuit was settled; its resolution included limiting Jim’s lease to three years and reinstating Kathy on the board of the family corporation.
Megan Molyneaux, Kathy’s daughter, who spent every summer at the lake property as a child, said she went to visit her grandparents during the dispute, and found her grandfather upset at what he was hearing from Jim. “He was telling my grandfather, ‘They’re trying to take your wife away,’ ” she said.
During oral arguments on Dec. 9, Chief Justice Jim Jones noted that plans to develop the property appears contrary to the parents’ desire to keep it in conservation status.
“They didn’t want it developed. They’re not making any more lakefront property in our world,” he said. “They wanted it preserved. We know it’s not going to be preserved.”
Silvey said Jim already has submitted development applications for the property, though they’re now on hold pending the litigation.
Magnuson argued in court documents that Jim’s “vision” for the property always included partial development and sale of the property, along with a conservation easement on a portion of the forest and “saving the lakefront.”
But his siblings are concerned that he’s already heavily logged portions of the property, and destroyed three old cabins where they used to stay, along with a 100-year-old barn.
Wrote Magnuson, “Their parents were aware that Jim was of the belief that portions of the property should be developed and that only portions should be placed in a conservation easement.”
In 2014, 1st District Judge John Mitchell dismissed the lawsuit without a trial.
“The evidence is Ralph and Jeanne were exasperated with their children, knew exactly what they were doing and sought and received professional legal advice to accomplish a different outcome,” the judge ruled.
The three siblings appealed.
The Idaho Supreme Court took the case under advisement and is expected to rule in the coming weeks.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.