The day after Charles Deal Sr. was hospitalized, a lawyer came to his bedside with a new will that disinherited his stepdaughter and disabled son in favor of a Cracker Barrel waitress who served him breakfast after his wife died.
Whether it was undue influence on a man in failing health and confused mind or a man who wanted to honor someone who comforted him in his last days will be decided by a jury.
Lawsuits like this one are rare, largely because state law makes overturning a will difficult, probate judges say, but some lawyers expect to see the number grow as the baby boom generation passes yet another benchmark — old age.
"It's only going to get worse," said Karen McManaway, who is representing Charles Deal Jr. in his effort to get the will of his father, Charles Deal Sr., set aside. She has several cases pending now.
Retired Judge C. Jean Stewart, the president of the National College of Probate Judges, said it's hard to say whether the number of cases is growing, or if it's a function of more lawyers, more people and families that aren't as unified as they once were.
"As our society has been changing, the people we describe as the natural objects of our bounty are changing," she said. "We live in communities, assisted living, nursing homes, and the people we are closest to at that stage of life are different."
There is no national statute on what constitutes undue influence. It is a state-by-state decision. Cherokee County Probate Judge Joshua Queen, in whose court the Deal lawsuit was filed, said the threshold for overturning a will is high in South Carolina. The state recognizes the rights of people to do whatever they want to do with their money and belongings.
Queen said, though, that when a will is challenged, it is most often in a case like Deal's, where a non-family member is left everything.
The Deal family
Charles Deal Sr.'s estate isn't large — less than $100,000 plus the house he and his wife, Ruth, owned outside Gaffney. But Ruth Deal's sister, Mary Bloomfield, who lives in England, is pressing the issue on behalf of her 48-year-old nephew because he cannot do it himself.
Charles Jr. hit a tree driving to his job as a loss prevention officer at Wal-Mart. Doctors weren't sure if the stroke he suffered was before or after the accident, and they didn't expect him to live, Bloomfield said. Then he had a heart attack.
He is sometimes confused, slow to answer, and doesn't understand all that goes on around him. The court has appointed a guardian ad litem to protect his interests in the court case. When Queen changed the guardian during a recent court hearing, Deal asked if it would affect him living alone.
He walks unsteadily, residual trouble with one side of his body due to the stroke. After his mother died in 2010, he became a ward of the state.
Bud Whelchel, who rents a house to Charles Jr., said the father couldn't care for the son.
"He tried, but Charles was more than he could handle," Whelchel said.
Bloomfield described her sister's marriage as difficult. Deal Sr. had trouble keeping a job in trucking, and Ruth largely supported the family with a longtime job at Service America Corp., which among other things provides vending machine services.
Ruth Clark grew up on a farm in Braintree in Essex, England, slightly more than an hour northwest of London. In school, she and Mary, who was seven years older, were both top of the region in net ball, akin to basketball in the U.S. Mary remembers her sister, young and carefree, riding horses on their land.
Ruth went to work in the civil service in the social security administration and later as an administrator in a treatment facility. She saw Charles, an airman, one day in 1958 close to her work. He had been drinking and she put him in a taxi back to Wethersfield Airbase, Bloomfield said.
He returned a few days later to say thank you. They began dating. Two years later, they married. Mary was matron of honor. Her parents were concerned. They knew she would leave England. And they weren't so sure of their son-in-law's prospects, Bloomfield said.
The couple prepared to come to the States, but a murmur was detected in Charles's heart, delaying his flight. Ruth came by herself in 1963 and went to stay with a woman who had been a houseguest of her parents.
"I was worried about her," Bloomfield said. Phone communication was limited, but every Sunday afternoon Ruth wrote to her mother and her mother wrote to her. Charles Sr. joined her, and their son was born two years later. Ruth's daughter Patricia, by a previous relationship with an American airman, stayed in England with her grandparents.
Through the years, Ruth and Charles lived in North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia and Tennessee before moving to South Carolina, where they bought a home on Silverton Road in the country outside Gaffney, hidden from the street by trees and shrubs.
"Ruth always found herself a job very quickly and adapted to the different states," Bloomfield said.
Death in the family
Ruth Deal died of a heart attack just before Christmas in 2010. Mary was under the impression that she left a will leaving half of her estate to her son and half to her husband. She also transferred ownership of the house on Silverton Road — half to her husband, a quarter each to Patricia and Charles Jr.
Her will was never probated, records show.
According to bank records McManaway obtained, Deal Sr. ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel in Gaffney six times in late 2012 and early 2013, a few months before he died. There, he met Angela Godfrey, a 47-year-old single mom of four.
Hospital records show Deal was admitted to a nursing home in January 2013. In early February, he was admitted to Spartanburg Regional and found to be suffering from diabetes, renal failure, vascular disease and malnutrition. He told doctors he was living on cigars and coffee.
He was sent to a nursing home and then readmitted to the hospital on Feb. 25, 2013. He was found to have congestive heart failure and a urinary tract infection.
He signed a new will drawn up by Gaffney lawyer Joseph Mathis on Feb. 26. Deal signed the will in the presence of a notary. He was discharged in Godfrey's care on March 5.
He was hospitalized again a few months later and was found to have lung cancer that had spread to his brain. He was released on May 15 and died the next morning at home.
Godfrey appeared in court last month for a hearing on whether a special representative should be appointed to handle the estate until the case comes before the court. McManaway said she will ask for a jury trial.
In court, McManaway said Godfrey has mismanaged the estate and used all but $53. Deal granted her power of attorney before he died. She withdrew a total of $10,344 before he died, $10,829 after the power of attorney papers were filed. An estate account once had a balance of about $18,000.
"Most of it is cash to her," McManaway said in court.
She also has Deal's car, which she paid off with money from the estate, and last month moved into the house.
Godfrey's attorney, William Rhoden, declined to talk about the case.
In the court hearing last month, he told the judge, "We are confident this is a valid will. She has been operating under the impression she was the sole beneficiary."
He called the request for a special administrator ludicrous.
"There's nothing here in the estate to pay for that," he told the judge.
McManaway also asked that Charles Jr. be allowed to go into the house and that an inventory be taken.
"Does she really want the family pictures and Bible?" McManaway said.
Rhoden said his client would make a list and continue to pay the $438 monthly mortgage even though there is no money left in the estate.
"I'm very hesitant to let someone walk through the house," Queen said. "That's when the sheriff's office gets involved."
Kimberly Truluck Thomason, who was Charles Jr.'s first guardian ad litem, read a list of withdrawals Godfrey had made from Deal Sr.'s bank account after he died.
"From what I'm looking at she spent $20,000 in the days after he died," she said. "We don't know where it's been spent or what's been purchased."
Queen ruled that Thomason couldn't continue as the guardian because she shares an office and administrative staff with McManaway.
Godfrey didn't testify.
Bloomfield said she has had one telephone conversation with Godfrey, in June of last year during which she asked Godfrey for her sister's jewelry. She also asked about the children's birth certificates that were in the house. Godfrey said she hadn't seen any of those items.
Bloomfield also said Godfrey told her the house would never be sold.
Asked after the hearing what he wanted, Charles Jr. said, "I want my bed that my mom built for me." The matter of a special administrator won't be settled until a new guardian ad litem is at work for Charles Jr.