By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
As a judge, lawyer and businessman, Walter L. Green left a sweeping and indelible mark on the civic and legal landscapes of Prince George's County. A founder of banks and a developer of office buildings, he has been credited with helping to modernize the county's economy.
When he died in 1993 at age 88, Green left a detailed 10-page will and an estate valued at nearly $30 million. His widow, Helen G. Nassif, filed in court to collect her portion -- roughly a third -- two months later.
Fourteen years later, Nassif and Green's children from a previous marriage, Carlton M. Green and Anne G. Fotos, remain engaged in a legal dispute.
The dispute has become unusually protracted -- even by the standards of emotionally charged estate conflicts -- and has turned into a battle of attrition with a slow-motion, seesawing life of its own: victories and defeats, appeals and reversals.
In a 2003 letter that is part of the court record, Nassif characterized the probate battle as "a costly and endless journey of hardship."
Green's will orders specific disbursements of relatively small amounts -- $20,000 to each of six grandchildren, $5,000 to a son-in-law -- and requires that the balance of his estate be split equally three ways among Nassif and his two children.
The legal fight boils down in part to a disagreement over the value of the estate, which includes business and real estate holdings. Green's attorneys recently estimated its value at $17 million. Nassif has rejected that estimate, saying it does not take rising property values into account. Several years ago, she described a $3.2 million settlement offer as "absurd."
An attorney for Fotos, 67, a county resident, did not return a call seeking comment. Carlton Green said he and his sister are acting together in the estate case, an assertion supported by court filings.
Carlton Green, 63, worked his way through college and law school and is a highly regarded lawyer who handles probate cases, among other things. He is a married father of four and lives in the family home in College Park where he and Fotos were raised.
For years, Nassif, 85, has lived in a condominium in Rockville. She is supported by her own assets, she said, and wants the estate matter to be resolved mainly so she can make a large philanthropic donation in honor of her late husband.
The two sides agree on little except that there was no acrimony between them before Green died and that the seemingly endless dispute has taken on a quality of unreality.
"It's a lot like watching a show on TV -- almost like we're not the people involved," Nassif said. "It's weird."
Green described the litigation as an "ordeal" but said he feels compelled to carry out what he says were his father's wishes. "I want it to be right," he said. "I don't want it to be a penny more or a penny less than she's entitled to."
Boxes of documents from the case more than fill a room at the Bethesda firm Paley Rothman, which represents Nassif, and another room in the College Park law office of Carlton Green, who was designated by his father as executor of the estate. Compromise is nowhere in sight.
Nassif has accused Carlton Green of intentionally protracting the battle, in part to limit his tax burden.
But Green says that settling the estate, which included businesses in seven states and millions of dollars due to creditors and taxes, was such a complex task that it could not have been accomplished until at least 2004.
The elder Green carved out a distinguished legal career: He established a law practice in Hyattsville in 1931, and from 1939 to 1945, he served as a magistrate trial judge -- then the equivalent of a district court judge -- in Prince George's.
But he made an even greater mark as a businessman and banker. He helped found banks in Prince George's, Montgomery and Fairfax counties. He bought hotels and developed office buildings. He was a founder of Allied Capital Corp., described in his obituary as one of the nation's largest small-business investment corporations.
Vincent J. Femia, a retired circuit court judge who hears cases from time to time, said Green was a key player in the county's transformation from "a rural, tobacco-based economy to a modern, business-oriented economy."
One prominent example of Walter Green's impact on Prince George's is the four-story federal courthouse in Greenbelt. For decades, the state's only federal courthouse was in Baltimore. In 1966, as president of the Prince George's Bar Association, Green was among the early advocates for establishing a federal courthouse for the southern section of the state.
In 1988, after years of political wrangling, President Ronald Reagan signed off on the project, and six years later, the $41 million building was dedicated.
Nassif said she and Green met at a D.C. Bar Association dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in the mid-1950s, when she was a stenographic law clerk. Green motioned for Nassif and her date to sit at his table. Nassif, in her 30s, and Green, in his 50s, talked through the night.
A few months later, Green called her and said he was thinking of buying a hotel at 10th and H streets NW, near the firm where Nassif worked. Green said he wanted Nassif's opinion on the hotel and took her to the building.
After advising him on the purchase and later the management of the hotel, Nassif says she told him that she merited a salary for her work as an informal consultant. He agreed to pay her $25 a month, plus lunches.
Green's first wife, Catherine Roe, died in 1959. Nassif said she and Green began dating two years later. Green proposed during a round-the-world trip, and they were married Aug. 24, 1963, in Egypt.
In time, Nassif developed her own career: She served on a bank board and invested in real estate. At the time she was married, she lived in the Woodner, an apartment complex on 16th Street NW in the District.
After the wedding, Nassif continued living in the apartment, and Green lived in College Park with his children. She later moved to Silver Spring and then to the condominium in Rockville.
Nassif and Green never lived together, an arrangement that she says was unconventional but one that both were comfortable with. "That may have been a secret to the longevity of our marriage," she said.
With her own investments, Social Security benefits and a few disbursements that have been made to her from the estate, Nassif lives comfortably. With her portion of the estate, she said, she hopes to make a donation to a medical center. Green had heart problems throughout much of his life, and Nassif said she hopes to have a cardiac ward named for him.
Carlton Green began working for his father as a teenager, cleaning septic tanks at an Eastern Shore hotel his father owned. He earned enough money mowing lawns to pay for his education at the University of Maryland and law school, he said, and he became one of his father's closest advisers.
Carlton Green's son, Walter L. Green, is also a lawyer. He is representing his father in the estate matter.
Asked what his father would say about the court fight, Carlton Green said: "He's not around to say anything. Unfortunately, the problems are visited on the son."
Asked what her husband would say, Nassif replied: "He would be appalled. He was never confrontational or controversial. He'd always compromise."