Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Divorce granted to dead husband

Inheritance drove post-mortem legal wrangling

By Karen Samples,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEWPORT — Tony Steffen has been dead for two years. Nevertheless, he just got divorced.

        In a case national experts are calling extraordinary, a circuit court judge in Northern Kentucky has dissolved the 58-year marriage of Mr. Steffen, who was 81 when he died, and his widow, Byrl, now 86.

        Behind the unusual ruling is a fight between the couple's adult children over a $1.5 million estate.

        The Steffens' son, Roger S. Steffen, and daughter, Susan Pearman, are estranged. Roger Steffen is aligned with his mother, and Ms. Pearman had been aligned with her father.

        In 1999, Roger Steffen helped his mother leave the family home in Cold Spring, Ky., and file for divorce, said Matt Darpel, the mother's attorney.

        In court records, Susan Pearman has characterized her mother's departure as a virtual abduction carried out by her brother so he could pressure their parents for money. The mother's attorney, Mr. Darpel, denies that allegation. Roger Steffen could not be reached for comment, despite phone messages and a note left at his Covington apartment.

        Tony Steffen, the elderly patriarch of the family, at first resisted the breakup, hoping his wife would return, acquaintances said. Then, after learning he had only weeks to live, he and his daughter began rushing to finalize the divorce, hoping to make sure Ms. Pearman would get her fair share of the estate, records show.

        At the same time, Byrl Steffen began trying to stop the divorce. As Tony Steffen's widow, rather than his ex-wife, most of the estate would pass to her.

        Byrl Steffen could not be reached for comment. Mr. Darpel said he thought she was in Florida with her son. Confined to a wheelchair, she cries frequently over the court battle and is too fragile to be interviewed, he said.

        “This case is just amazing,” said Lindsey Short, a Houston divorce attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

        Adult children have no standing in their parents' divorces, he said, and once a party dies, there is no longer a marriage and thus no possibility of divorce.

        Nevertheless, the Steffens now have one. As a result, Byrl Steffen and Susan Pearman each should receive about $782,000, according to an estimate prepared by Jeffrey Arnzen, attorney for the estate. Without the divorce, Byrl Steffen would have inherited about $1.3 million and her daughter the remainder, about $282,000, records show.

        Roger Steffen was left only $75 in his father's will.

        The Steffens' marriage was dissolved on May 15 by Campbell County Circuit Judge William Wehr, who made the decree retroactive to March 17, 2000. On that day, while hooked up to IVs at St. Luke Hospital East, Tony Steffen testified that he indeed wanted to be divorced. He died 15 days later.

        If the decree stands, the Steffen case may be the only one of its kind in the country, said John C. Mayoue, an Atlanta attorney who has written four books on family law.

        He, too, was amazed.

        “There's a policy issue here,” Mr. Mayoue said. “We don't want people suing a deceased person for divorce. Divorce is very much a lifetime kind of thing.”

        Judge Wehr could not be reached for comment on his ruling, which the losing side has said it will appeal. The judge's staff attorney said the judge is ethically prohibited from discussing cases.

        Court records show that by divorcing the couple, Jude Wehr was trying to respect the wishes of a dying man and be fair to his survivors.

        “The action of the Court ... is equitable in that the net effect ... will be that the parties' daughter will inherit the husband/father's division of the marital asset, while the son is aligned with the wife/mother,” the judge wrote.

        At the center of the case is the late Tony Steffen, a man who looked like George Burns, loved to wheel and deal at auctions and pinched every penny he had, said his former attorney, Jan Kreutzer of Newport.

        Mr. Steffen was a lifelong Sears salesman who used his savings to buy rental property in Fort Thomas and Pendleton County. At the same time, the Steffens' 11-acre farm at 14 Murnan Road has greatly increased in value.

        Just off U.S. 27 in fast-growing Cold Spring, the property was optioned by Home Depot for $2.5 million in 2000, Ms. Kreutzer said. The deal fell through, but development continues along U.S. 27, increasing the land's value.

        The Steffens' daughter, Susan Pearman, has lived in Fresno, Calif., for almost two decades. She runs a smoking-prevention program and takes care of her husband, who has Parkinson's disease.

        In an interview, Ms. Pearman said she and her brother stopped talking about eight years ago, which was around the time she claims he began pressuring their parents for money.

        Roger Steffen has a business in Newport called Historic Militaria, through which he sells antique military equipment on consignment.

        Campbell County court records show Mr. Steffen has been sued at least three times since 1997 by consigners who claim he failed to return items to them or failed to pay them after sales. The amounts in dispute totaled at least $52,000, court records show.

        Some of the suits were settled and others were dismissed because process servers could not locate Mr. Steffen, records show. His attorney in one of those cases, Rick Jarvis of Covington, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

        In court filings related to the divorce, Tony Steffen said the couple gave Roger money until early 1999, when Mr. Steffen announced there would be no more loans. It was then that Roger Steffen came and took Mrs. Steffen away, the elderly man said in court documents.

        In an interview, Ms. Pearman said her mother wanted to continue helping Roger and had used her credit cards to give him cash. Records filed in the divorce show that in 1997, Byrl Steffen arranged at least $14,000 in loans through her credit cards, but the records do not indicate whether Roger Steffen benefited.

        Over the phone with her daughter, Byrl Steffen would say she was going to commit suicide if her husband didn't agree to more loans, Ms. Pearman said.

        She is now uncertain of her mother's whereabouts and concerned for her well-being, she said. She and her attorneys have not been able to find Mrs. Steffen at Roger's Covington apartment.

        Matt Darpel, Mrs. Steffen's attorney, denied Ms. Pearman's account of the situation. In the last several years, Ms. Pearman has made no attempt to contact her mother, he said.

        Byrl Steffen has never threatened suicide, and if she made any loans to Roger, she has never raised them as a concern, Mr. Darpel said.

        He pointed out that Tony Steffen, in the months before he died, violated a judge's order not to deplete marital assets. From June to November 1999, Mr. Steffen withdrew cash totaling $30,000 from his bank accounts and put $40,000 into certificates of deposit payable to Susan Pearman upon his death, court records show.

        Tony Steffen was a controlling, secretive man who apparently was trying to hide assets from his wife before they separated, Mr. Darpel said. She left the marriage of her own free will and says she should have done it long before, he said.

        That she later changed her mind about the divorce is none of the children's business, Mrs. Steffen's attorney said.

        He will be appealing Judge Wehr's decree to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, he said.


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