A Client With A Surprise Seven-Figure Estate

, The Connecticut Law Tribune


When a retired woman walked into Louis George's law office looking for legal advice in creating a will, the trusts and estates lawyer didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. In fact, Kathleen Magowan seemed like any other prospective client.

"She was very polite. She drove a Buick, I think," George recalled.

But Magowan, who worked as a first-grade school teacher for 35 years, was not a typical client for George, a principal at Hassett & George in Simsbury. Instead, she was a secret millionaire who had squirreled away $6 million over the course of her lifetime, some of it tucked away in empty oatmeal containers in her kitchen cupboard.

"She told us at the time that she knew she had some money, but thought it was only about $40,000," George said. "She had no idea how much she had. That old buy-and-hold investment strategy had really paid off."

Magowan recently made headlines because her small fortune was used to benefit a number of organizations in the Hartford area. But to George and others in the trusts and estates field, the episode reveals a little-known truth. Though not an everyday occurrence, it is not uncommon for elderly people to lose track of how much money they have in their savings accounts or stock portfolios. And sometimes people who are nearing the end of their lives make conscious decisions not to share just how much they have with the rest of the world.

That was the case with a 98-year-old Seattle attorney, Jack MacDonald, who made headlines last month when it was revealed that he left nearly $200 million to three organizations, including the University of Washington School of Law. In media reports, MacDonald was described as a "coupon-clipping man who wore threadbare clothes and used public transportation to keep his finances a secret."

Mark Korber, chair of the trusts and estates practice group of Murtha Cullina in Hartford, said big surprises don't happen every day. Still, in general, Korber said, "people report to us that they have less than they actually have." In contrast, almost no one says they have more than they actually do.

There are many reasons someone might want to hide their wealth from a lawyer.

"Often, when you sit down with a client like that, you can tell from their body language that their not telling you everything," Korber said. "Sometimes, I think they're worried we're going to tell the IRS, but we are obligated to keep all financial information confidential. Sometimes, they're just being modest."

When a client does not disclose to the lawyer how much money is in their accounts and investments, it can mean more work for the lawyers involved.

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