An estate battle has been finalised over the estate of coffee mogul Leroy Hill, who died in 2009, between his second wife and his children from his first marriage. Leroy Hill was a self-made millionaire who married his first wife, Bonnie, just after they graduated from high school. Leroy formed L. Roy Hill Company, which operated as a distributor for a coffee business named the Belford Company. Leroy and Bonnie operated the company out of their home. Bonnie handled the bookkeeping and secretarial duties until the business got off the ground.
In 1961, Hill’s brother-in-law bought into the company and it was renamed Hill & Brooks Coffee Co. Brooks later sold his share back to Hill in 1993, when he was battling cancer.
In 1969, Leroy used the couple’s savings to buy Belford’s remaining interest in the Mobile market. By 1983, Leroy Hill took out a full-page ad in the Mobile Press Register proclaiming Hill & Brooks as one of the fastest growing companies in the Southeast. The advertisement crediting Hill & Brooks’ success to its employees singled out his children, Roy Wayne, Debra, Todd and Brian, and his son-in-law, Paul Stewart, who all worked at the coffee company or the family ranch.
In 1984, Leroy and Bonnie Hill divorced, after nearly three decades together. Despite the length of their union, Leroy Hill negotiated a divorce agreement with Bonnie that gave her a $1,500 monthly stipend, according to court documents. At the time, the coffee business and cattle ranch were worth upwards of $20 million. Bonnie Hill’s attorney for the divorce urged her to seek more than the monthly stipend, but Bonnie said she trusted her ex-husband and had no reason to believe he wouldn’t honor their deal.
Claude Boone, an attorney who represents Deborah Hill, said after the divorce Leroy Hill continued to be generous to his first wife, making sure Bonnie Hill got a new car every few years along with at least one home and other cash allotments. Bonnie Hill also continued to work for the coffee company following the divorce.
When Leroy died at the age of 76, he left the vast majority of his estate to his second wife, a chunk of cash to each of his sons, and nothing for his daughter and first wife.
At the heart of the legal dispute is a missing inheritance agreement, said to have been penned by Leroy Hill when he was trying to divorce his first wife without busting up a successful coffee business and selling off a thriving ranch they owned in southwest Mobile County.
Bonnie alleges that he late coffee magnate and his second wife destroyed evidence that would prove he cut a deal with his first wife, Bonnie Hill, by promising to leave the company and ranch to his children in exchange for a quick and quiet divorce. Hill’s second wife, Deborah Hill, probated a will after his death that left the lion’s share of his fortunes, said to be worth at least $25 million, to her. Hill’s children, who continued to work for the company long after he divorced their mother, have testified to meetings with Leroy and Deborah Hill where both promised the children that while Hill would leave millions in assets to his second wife — such as a home on Dauphin Island — he would still honor the agreement he’d made with Bonnie Hill. After his death, when the children asked Deborah Hill to give them the written agreement stored at the company she now controls, she told them she didn’t know what they were talking about.
In 2014, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the children of Leroy Hill could take control of his coffee business and ranch in Grand Bay from his second wife. The court unanimously found that the coffee company and $40 million estate belonged to Hill’s children and not his second wife, Debbie Hill.
This case highlights the danger of assuming that someone will ‘do the right thing’, especially in the case of a second marriage. It is common for children from the first marriage to find themselves in a lengthy court battle with the surviving spouse. Section 41 The Succession Act 1981 (Qld) sets out the responsibilities of a will-maker in that adequate provision ought to be made to a spouse, children and other dependents. In some cases, this includes former spouses. If adequate provision is not given, as in both cases listed above, the will may be challenged.
What should I do if I have a blended family?
- Understand that you must provide fairly for your spouse, your children, your step-children and your adopted children. Failure to do so opens the door to litigation over your estate.
- Understand that it is common for your new spouse and your children from your previous marriage not to get along, especially after your death. You should make specific provision for all family members rather than hoping that they will ‘do the right thing’.
- Understand that you need specialist legal advice. Succession law is complex.
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