Victims' Daughter Denied Share of Estate

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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

The daughter of a Fairfax County couple murdered in their Oakton home two years ago is not entitled to inherit any of their million-dollar estate because the couple's wills specifically exclude "any child" of theirs, a Fairfax judge ruled yesterday.

Paul and Margaret Cooke, both graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school and successful business executives, drew up separate wills in 1985, when they were childless. They named the same beneficiaries: half of their estate to Paul Cooke's sisters and half to Margaret Cooke's mother, Ethel Jones, and longtime friend Sharon Spratley.

The wills named those adult beneficiaries "to the express exclusion of any child of mine now living or hereafter born."

In 1989, the Cookes adopted two children from foster care in Ohio: Joshua, 6, and Tiffany, 5. But over the next 14 years, the Cookes never amended their wills. Two life insurance policies for Paul Cooke, worth about $111,000 each, named his wife as the only beneficiary.

While Tiffany Cooke was off at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in February 2003, Joshua Cooke walked into his parents' basement one snowy night and killed them with repeated shotgun blasts. Tiffany was on the phone with her father at the time and heard both killings.

Her brother picked up the phone and told her that he had to go. He then dialed 911, twice, to report that he had killed his parents. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Less than three months after her parents' death, Tiffany Cooke filed suit in Fairfax asking to be named the executor of the estate and the sole beneficiary. The Cookes had named Spratley and their attorney, Thomas O. Murphy, as executors. Tiffany Cooke's bid to become executor was rejected by the courts.

Still, the battle over the estate continued. Joshua Cooke was legally ineligible to inherit anything, having slain his parents. Tiffany Cooke did receive the $222,000 from Paul Cooke's life insurance as his only eligible heir, court records show.

The total assets of the estate have not been made public. But the Cookes' home in Oakton was sold for $500,000 more than the Cookes paid for it in 1987; they owned a condominium in Arlington; and their savings and retirement funds were estimated in one court filing at more than $600,000.

At a hearing in August, Spratley described her friendship with the Cookes and how they asked her to be an executor. She did not explain why the clause was inserted to exclude any children, though she said the couple was hoping in 1985 to adopt.

Tiffany Cooke testified that she had never met Spratley until her parents' burial. Anne E. Cooke, one of Paul Cooke's sisters, said she had not heard of Spratley until the burial.

After the hearing, Anne Cooke said that she and her sister sided with Tiffany Cooke and believed that Paul and Margaret Cooke would have wanted their estate to go to their daughter. Anne Cooke did not say in August whether she and her sister would give their half of the estate to their niece, and she could not be located for comment yesterday.

Virginia law has two statutes for children who are not named in a parent's will: one for when the child is born after the will is written, and a second for when the child is omitted completely. The first law applied to Tiffany Cooke, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David T. Stitt ruled yesterday, and it applies only if the child "is not provided for or mentioned."

Stitt noted that the Cookes "were well-educated people; they didn't live their lives by default. They basically had 18 years to change their wills if they wanted to do -- which they didn't." He said that the Cookes' wills were "clear and unambiguous" and that Tiffany is not entitled to a share of the estate.

Tiffany Cooke, now 21, was not in court yesterday and could not be located for comment. Her attorney, Herbert Rosenblum, said he does not speak to reporters and would not say whether he will appeal.

Spratley said, "Margaret and Paul can rest in peace."


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