Washington retail and real estate magnate Herbert H. Haft amended his will two weeks before his death to make clear that he wanted his new wife to control the bulk of his $50 million estate, as well as to keep his three children out of any inheritance.
The amendment was signed Aug. 18 while Haft, 84, was at Sibley Memorial Hospital suffering from kidney failure and liver disease and connected to a feeding tube. On the same day, Haft married his longtime companion, Myrna C. Ruben. The document confirms the marriage and reinforces Haft's plan from a July 2003 will to let her manage his estate.
Haft's death Sept. 1, after a five-week stay at the Northwest Washington hospital, could continue the family's history of disputes over money and control, a soap opera that played out through much of the 1990s in the courts. In August, his daughter, Linda, went to court in a last-minute bid to block the marriage, contending that he was mentally unfit.
Legal experts said the deathbed marriage and legal document appear to be an effort by Haft or his new wife to solidify her position as the future executor of Haft's millions. The change does not substantially alter Haft's previous plans for his vast real estate holdings and cash, they said, but it could make it more difficult for his three grown children from a previous marriage -- Linda, Robert and Ronald Haft -- to challenge the will.
Although Linda Haft was unsuccessful in stopping the marriage, her attorneys did persuade a court to have Haft examined in the final days of his life to determine whether someone else should be appointed to manage his affairs. Those medical records, filed as part of the probate proceedings, could become fodder for a dispute over the will.
Doctors who examined Haft before and after the wedding found him to have "fluctuating mental status" and to be "woozy" and "confused" on some days, records show. But not always: Roughly every other day, the doctors said, especially when he was not undergoing kidney dialysis, Haft was more likely to be focused and competent to make decisions.
Myrna Ruben Haft, 69, referred questions to her attorneys. They filed the amended will late Thursday in D.C. Superior Court as her official claim to be executor and co-trustee of the estate. Her son, Marshall Ruben, was named as the other trustee.
Her attorneys at Covington & Burling said they were prepared for another Haft family duel.
Herbert Haft, founder of Dart Drug, built a business conglomerate that at times included retailers Crown Books, Trak Auto, Total Beverage and Shoppers Food Warehouse, as well as a real estate holding firm, Combined Properties. Family warfare over control of the holdings ultimately caused those businesses to be sold or forced into bankruptcy.
"We're certainly hopeful there will be no contest," said Lanny Breuer, one of the attorneys representing the estate and Myrna Ruben Haft. "But if past is prologue and there is litigation, we will defend the estate. There were numerous witnesses who will be prepared to testify he was of sound mind when he signed."
Three attorneys, two from the Chevy Chase firm of Furey Doolen & Abell who drafted the will and another previously associated with Haft, signed as witnesses to the Aug. 18 event. Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge S. Michael Pincus officiated at the wedding, which took place within minutes of the will's signing.
Robert Haft had previously told The Washington Post that all three siblings had begun to reconcile with their father while he was at Sibley; at the time of the death, Robert had a lawsuit pending against his father seeking $2 million for an old debt. He had no comment yesterday. Ronald Haft did not return calls for comment yesterday, and Linda Haft's attorney said he was unaware of the new will.
In the document signed Aug. 18, Herbert Haft reasserted his wish that all three of his children receive nothing.
"I have not made provision for any of my children or their descendants in the disposition of my assets . . . and that is my considered and definite intention," the document reads.
Nicholas Ward, a lawyer who has written textbooks on probate and estate law, said that the issue now hinges on whether Haft was mentally competent when he signed the papers. If not, his marriage to Myrna Ruben and the amendment to his will would be potentially null, or at least vulnerable to legal challenge.
Kenneth J. Loewinger, a probate dispute expert not involved in this case, said it appears that Haft or Myrna Haft took both steps Aug. 18 to create barriers for protecting Haft's wishes.
"This looks like the man's parting shot and one more hoop for the children to have to jump [through]," Loewinger said.
In seeking to stop the marriage until there was a mental examination, Linda Haft's attorney argued in court papers that Herbert Haft was vulnerable to manipulation while "weak and feeble-minded" from illness. The court papers say that Haft had known Ruben for almost 10 years and that he "has repeatedly indicated his lack of desire" to marry her.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Jose M. Lopez appointed psychologist Ronald Wynne to examine Haft, and he did so Aug. 26.
Wynne wrote that he found Haft competent that day but noted that this was subject to change. He said a psychiatrist who examined Haft on Aug. 13 -- five days before the wedding -- noted that Haft "clearly had some fluctuating mental status over the past weeks."
The psychologist's report provided other details. When Wynne asked Haft whether he was actively involved in overseeing his businesses, Haft responded quickly: "Is this off the record?" He later said that he negotiated a multimillion-dollar deal from his hospital bed two days earlier and complained that the court was now involved because "my former wife wants me to move back under her control."
Haft wrote in an earlier will that he had provided amply for his three children during his lifetime. In 1994, Linda and Robert Haft each received $16.5 million in an agreement to settle several family financial disputes, while Haft and his son Ronald retained control of the family business. Two years later, in another settlement, Herbert relinquished most of the real estate holdings to Ronald in exchange for $39 million.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.