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A Million Dollar Inheritance to the Decedent’s Insurance Agent?

Will contestDid Blanche Berenzweig profited illegally when she allegedly had an attorney with whom she shared an office draft a will naming her beneficiary of a reclusive Milwaukee man estate valued at $1.6 million?  

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Marshall Murray ordered that a trial be held this fall to determine who should collect the entire $1.6 million estate of LeRoy Ern, a Milwaukee man who lived the life of a hermit. He died of advanced dementia in 2016 at the age of 92.  He left everything to Blanche Berenzweig, a now-retired insurance agent who lives in Mequon and Las Vegas.  LeRoy Ern's only relationship with Blanche Berenzweig was on two occasions when he met her professionally.  He met Berenzweig in 1993, when she helped him purchase an annuity. They became reacquainted in 2008, when Ern was having a problem with that policy. 

Rachel Pings, an administrative law judge, wrote a proposed order that was filed in the Circuit Court probate case.   She says Berenzweig put herself in a position to entirely manage his money and exploited Ern's trust and isolation by knowingly being named as the beneficiary of his annuities, when she had no insurable interest in his life. "She profited illegally by more than $1 million," Pings wrote.

The order now goes to state Insurance Commissioner who will decide whether to uphold the recommendations that Berenzweig return the annuity proceeds, permanently revoke her insurance license and fine her $3,000. The annuity proceeds are frozen.  Pings' decision says the fact that Berenzweig served as Ern's agent, beneficiary, and power of attorney posed obvious conflicts.

11 of Ern's 12 nieces and nephews objected to the will that was drafted in 2009. They said Berenzweig improperly pressured their reclusive uncle. Ern also gave her power of attorney over his financial and health affairs, if he became incapacitated.  However, Ern was never close to his nieces and nephews. The relationships grew more distant as his siblings died. That lack of a relationship did not impact their  decision to go forward with a challenge of uncle's entire will, which named Berenzweig as the sole beneficiary.

Berenzweig insists that she vehemently objected to Ern making her the beneficiary of the annuities and the estate but that her client was insistent.  Pings however, noted in her opinion that insurance regulators consider Berenzweig "an unethical insurance agent who took advantage of her position of trust with a lonely old man, so she could benefit from his sizable estate when he died."

Reference: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (March 12, 2018) “Insurance agent should give up $1 million received from client's policies, judge recommends”

 

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