During the eight years Anthony A. Williams served as mayor of the District, his mother, Virginia E. Hayes Williams, was a familiar fixture around the city, representing her son at official functions and social events so often that she was known as the District’s “first mother.”
Some 10 years before her death last year at age 87, Williams filed her last will and testament with the court bequeathing many of her modest possessions and remaining money to her children and a local charity.
But over the past several months, a battle has erupted in D.C. Superior Court over the contents of her will. Virginia Williams’s eight children have been embroiled in an ugly dispute over her estate.
The judge overseeing the case has urged the family to settle outside the courtroom.
Two of the former mayor’s sisters, Carla Williams, 60, of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and Virginia Williams II, 62, of Kenmore, Wash., filed a petition with the court arguing that some of their mother’s belongings, including designer purses and jewelry, were unfairly given away to family members who were not specifically named in the will.
Probate court has become one of D.C. Superior Court’s busiest divisions. At the end of last year, the probate division had more than 7,300 cases pending, the largest number for that division in at least five years and the second-highest number of pending cases for the entire courthouse, behind civil. Families disputing the contents of a will have become so numerous in the District that Superior Court officials recently increased the number of judges overseeing such cases to three and a part-time judge, up from two more than a decade ago.
The high-profile case illustrates that such family disagreements following the death of a parent, guardian or family member are so frequent that even one of Washington’s most visible and influential families isn’t immune.
In an interview, the former mayor said he believes the dispute will be settled soon through mediation. Anthony Williams said he supports his oldest brother, Lewis, whom his mother made executor, and trusts his decisions.
“Look, my mother had very little money,” the 63-year-old former mayor said. “You are not talking about Brooke Astor’s estate here.”
There are several issues with the will, according to the petition. First, when their mother filled out the will, she named each of her children as beneficiaries. But she mistakenly left out one child, Loris Williams, who lives in Los Angeles. But elsewhere in the will, she referred to her eight children. So when Virginia Williams died, Lewis Williams divided the assets of her estate among eight. But Carla Williams argued that it should have been divvied up among only the seven children named. They split up their mother’s insurance money and savings, which totaled about $7,700 each.
In addition, the will does not explicitly designate specific items to go to specific children, allowing for family members to take items they wanted.
Carla Williams argued, for instance, that her mother’s belongings were given to Loris Williams and the former mayor’s wife before either she or her sister Virginia could ask for them. “They went in there with boxes and took everything,” she said in an interview, adding that the women believe other family members, including several of Virginia Williams’s adult granddaughters, went through Williams’s apartment soon after she died and took items.
Meanwhile, the sisters said they believed Lewis Williams, 66, was not competent to serve as executor as a result of a stroke last May and wanted him removed. At a March hearing, Lewis Williams told the judge that his physical health was fine and that he was capable of serving as executor. Judge Russell F. Canan agreed and refused to replace Lewis Williams as executor.
The former mayor said he and five of his siblings support the decisions their brother has made with the estate. “Six of the siblings share my view. That’s a 75 percent approval rating,” he mused.
At the March hearing, the judge encouraged the family to work out its differences outside of the court. “I am sure this is not what your mother would have wanted, to be in court trying to resolve this in this fashion,” Canan said. He also encouraged the family to enter mediation before the next hearing, scheduled for Thursday.
Another point of contention is the D.C. charity that Virginia Williams left her belongings to. Williams said she wanted her belongings to go a District charity that has since closed. So the family gave Williams’s purses and jewelry to Covenant House.
Carla Williams identified several items she said were missing, including a Louis Vuitton briefcase, which she said was valued at about $295; a Louis Vuitton wallet she valued at $690; a lambskin Mizi Vienna purse she valued at $2,700; her mother’s big-screen TV; an iPod; and her mother’s diamond and pearl rings and necklaces. Those items, she contends, should have been available for the children named in the will to have a chance to select.
“Where is all my mother’s jewelry?” Carla Williams asked in one of the court filings. “Where is my father’s watch that was in my mother’s apartment and was promised to my brother Leif Eric Hayes Williams upon my mother’s passing?”
The sisters say in court papers that they believe those expensive items went to the charity or to other relatives not named. At the March hearing, Anthony Williams’s wife, Diane Williams, sat in the courtroom with her arms folded. She nodded her head when the attorney said the mayor’s wife received only costume jewelry from her mother-in-law.
Virginia Williams II, who was named after her mother and was nicknamed “Little Virginia,” says the dispute is largely an illustration of how the family has not been close for decades. “We had a camaraderie when we were little,” she said. “But it hasn’t been the same when we got older.”