By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Several colleges and other beneficiaries of a late Connecticut woman’s $3.6 million estate have agreed to settle a dispute involving changes made to her will after she was diagnosed with dementia and allegations that others sought to take advantage of her.
A trial in the case of art teacher Lucille Diorio’s fortune was scheduled to begin this week in West Hartford Probate Court, but a preliminary settlement agreement was reached on Jan. 5. A probate court judge has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Thursday.
The longtime West Hartford resident was 89 when she died in April 2009. Her husband, Anthony, an aviation company executive, died in 1999. Their only child, Jeanne, died of meningitis in 1963 when she was a freshman at the University of Hartford.
The dispute involving Diorio’s estate centered on two people who were close to her at the end of her life and who stood to gain a combined $1.3 million after her 2005 will was changed in 2006. The proposed settlement would throw out the 2006 will and largely restore the earlier version, with some changes.
The changes to the 2006 will also cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in bequests to several colleges and other beneficiaries, whose probate court challenge led to the preliminary settlement.
`This was a complete shock to learn about all this taking place when it was obvious to us that Lucille was not of sound mind,” said Diorio friend Lois Churchill of Glastonbury, in a letter to the probate court.
Diorio’s longtime neighbor and friend, Joseph Ciciotte, who was executor of her estate, was due to get $400,000 under the 2005 will, but that amount ballooned to $900,000 in the 2006 will, probate court documents show. Under the settlement, he would get $575,000.
The 2006 will also set aside $400,000 for Debra Hyde, who had Diorio as an art teacher in elementary school in West Hartford and befriended her in her final years. Hyde wasn’t a beneficiary in the 2005 will. She would get $350,000 under the settlement.
Diorio left the University of Hartford $1 million in the 2005 will for a scholarship in her daughter’s memory, but that donation was cut to $100,000 in 2006.
The earlier will also left certain percentages for three New York schools Diorio attended and donated money to for years _ Columbia University’s Teachers College, New York University and Parsons The New School for Design. All three were eliminated as beneficiaries in 2006.
After donations to Ciciotte, Hyde and others, the settlement calls for the University of Hartford to get about 37 percent of the remainder of the estate, or about $900,000. The three New York schools would now get about $160,000 apiece.
The last will was completed in September 2006, shortly after a doctor diagnosed her with dementia, probate court documents say. Other friends had expressed concerns about Diorio’s mental capacity as early as late 2005, court documents show.
Diorio was moved from her home to an assisted living center in October 2006, after more testing confirmed she had moderate dementia, court documents say.
Deborah Tedford, a lawyer for the three New York schools, wrote in court documents that “the will contestants have consistently alleged that the will proponents exercised undue influence.”
edford also wrote that “Lucille had become uncomfortable with Debra Hyde and indicated distrust and suspicion over Debra’s motives.”
Tedford said the schools were pleased with the settlement.
“The important thing for the charities is to focus on their charitable endeavors and not on lawsuits,” Tedford said in a phone interview.
Lawyers for Ciciotte and Hyde denied any wrongdoing by their clients and said in interviews and court documents that Diorio was competent when she signed off on the 2006 will. The settlement agreement says reverting to the 2005 will shall not be considered an admission of any wrongdoing.
“We would deny that there was anything untoward on Debra Hyde’s part, or Joe Ciciotte’s part for that matter,” said Hyde’s lawyer, John A. Berman. “This is probate law. People with dementia can still draw wills and people with dementia do draw wills. … You don’t lose all your rights when you have a little dementia.”
The state attorney general’s office has sued Hyde in civil court over what it calls questionable actions that led to Hyde being name the beneficiary of Diorio’s retirement account, which is worth more than $700,000. The case is pending in Hartford Superior Court.
“We think the facts here throw up serious red flags,” said Assistant Attorney General Karen Gano.
Gano said the attorney general’s office also agreed to withdraw from the probate court case, based on Hyde relinquishing all claims to the retirement account money. That money is expected to go to charities.
Gano, however, said her office did refer the matter to the chief state’s attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution. A spokesman for the chief state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)