- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

POULSBO, Wash. (AP) - The late Eva Rova Barnes was strong-willed and lived life on her own terms. Everyone who knew her agrees on this fact, if nothing else.

Whether she knew what she was doing when she cut her family out of her will, and instead bequeathed her stake in her family’s 46-acre Poulsbo homestead to her mail carrier, is a question that ultimately had to be decided in January by the state Supreme Court, the Kitsap Sun reported (https://bit.ly/1WezujQ).

Rova Road, off Bond Road outside Poulsbo, is named after Barnes’ family. Near the bend in the road lies her parents’ original 21 acres, bought in 1918 when Barnes was 3, along with the 25 acres bought by Barnes and her husband, Ray. It was there that the Barneses raised their daughter, Karolyn.

Both Ray and Karolyn died before Barnes, leaving her with no direct descendants.

When Barnes died in 2011, weeks shy of her 95th birthday, her will gave her sizable stake in the 46 acres, along with other nearby real estate and the rest of Barnes’ property, to her friend and caretaker, Michelle Velarde, whom she got to know years before as her mail carrier.

Barnes’ closest blood relatives, her nieces and nephews, contested the will, starting a legal battle over whether Barnes was freely making her own decisions at the end of her life. In January the state’s high court upheld the trial judge’s ruling that Velarde had exercised undue influence over Barnes, voiding the last will that gave the property to Velarde and her ex-husband, and turned the estate to Barnes’ family.

The 8-0 ruling reversed an appellate court decision that incorrectly “reweighed” the evidence from the trial in Kitsap County Superior Court, justices found. The trial court had ruled that Barnes’ last will coincided with her increasing dependence on Velarde and her widening rift from her family. The court also found that Velarde had “fanned the flames” of the anger and mistrust between Barnes and her family.

A FORCEFUL PERSONALITY

The “undue influence” case drew attention of attorneys inside and outside of the state and highlights what Barnes’ family says are the risks facing vulnerable adults. The family nearly lost land that had been in their pioneer family for a century. They plan to turn it over to a nonprofit or land conservancy.

The land holds special memories for the Rovas. Just being back on the property, among the trees he climbed as a boy, is enough to send nephew John Rova, 67, into a reverie.

“I’m 13 while I’m standing here,” he said.

“She had everything she ever had,” said Vicki Rova Mueller, Barnes’ niece, who described her late aunt as “feisty” and a person who had a tendency to hoard. “She just didn’t get rid of stuff. For her to give anything away is a big deal, but to then realize somehow she gave everything away, that was another piece, it helped us realize something had gone awry.”

Velarde said she didn’t ask for the fight and was honoring her friend’s final wish.

“They say I exerted undue influence over Eva. Eva exerted undue influence over me,” Velarde said. “Eva did exactly what she wanted to do. She was the boss.”

Kevin Cure, the attorney for the Rovas, said that because of Barnes’ mental and physical difficulties, she was susceptible to being manipulated.

“She had become very paranoid, very concerned that her family - the only family she had, the family she had been close to her whole life - was trying to put her in a nursing home and wanted to develop the homestead,” Cure said. “We were able to show that Michelle (Velarde) fanned that fire, and encouraged that line of thinking, or else didn’t discourage it, and that was to her benefit.”

THE FALL

Barnes lived alone and in 2009 she fell in her kitchen and was on the floor for more than two days. Velarde said she ultimately realized what had happened and called 911. Velarde said she was there when Barnes was taken out on a stretcher, and when Barnes saw Velarde, she said: “I knew you would find me.”

Barnes was insistent on returning home and was adamant that she did not want to live in a nursing home. She had been hoarding newspapers and other items, and the fire department said the house was too dangerous as is, and needed to be cleaned up. The Rovas and Velarde cleaned it, and at some point Barnes’ address book went missing. It was a treasured memento for Barnes, and she blamed her family for its disappearance. It was during this time that Velarde said her friendship with Barnes became closer, and Velarde began helping Barnes so that she could remain in her home.

“I got the real treasure, they can have the dirt,” Velarde said, who noted she resented being painted as a “greedy little mongrel.”

The family contends it made efforts to visit and include Barnes but allege Velarde had made changes to Barnes’ phone plan that prevented easy contact and interfered in other ways.

“That’s the thing that kills me, that she took her away from us,” said Marsha Rova, another of Barnes’ nieces. “We’ll never get those years back with her.”

Velarde said her actions were in service to her friend and have been twisted to make her into a villain. She admits to changing Barnes’ phone plan, which is cited as one of the ways she allegedly isolated Barnes, but Velarde said it was to help save Barnes money. The court noted a mortgage payment toward Velarde’s house cleared Barnes’ account on the day she died and was written by Velarde when Barnes was in or close to being in a coma.

Velarde admits that she was in financial straits, but she had been essentially living at Barnes’ house as her friend was dying, sleeping next to her, providing round-the-clock care and Barnes knew she needed help with her mortgage and insisted on helping her.

“I was Eva’s friend, I walked her all the way home, I couldn’t do anything different,” she said.

LAST WILL

Jeff Tolman, Barnes’ attorney, prepared the will in which Barnes bequeathed her estate to Velarde. Because he was a witness in the case and serves as Poulsbo Municipal Court judge and knows Kitsap’s other judges, Clallam County Superior Court Judge Brooke Taylor was brought in to conduct the trial.

Tolman said he took the unusual steps, in what was already an unusual case, of setting up a meeting between Barnes and the family - a meeting Tolman said did not go well - along with having Barnes sign another document specifying why she wanted to change her will. Tolman did this on top of asking Barnes the typical detailed questions attorneys usually ask when changing a will.

Tolman said he wouldn’t have proceeded if he thought Barnes didn’t have the capacity to understand what she was doing. One analysis of the decision, by a law firm from Arizona, found that although Barnes did have the capacity to change her will, it was procured by undue influence. One fact cited by attorneys was that Velarde drove Barnes to Tolman’s office.

Velarde said she had no choice but to drive Barnes, saying that Barnes would have tried to drive herself and that she had her license taken away.

In the analysis by the Arizona firm, the author wrote it is natural for people to want to include their caregivers in their wills, however: “Such gifts are always suspect because of the position of trust and power that the caregiver holds over the senior.”

“I don’t have a dog in the fight, other than that my clients sign wills that accurately reflect their wishes,” Tolman said. In light of the steps he had taken, Tolman said he had hoped the Supreme Court would have given attorneys in his position some guidance. “As a lawyer, what obligation do I have?” Tolman said. “If I believe you know what you are doing, my job is not to argue with you.”

Barnes was never formally diagnosed with dementia, but there were findings that she had been suffering from some progressive cognitive impairment. Velarde disputes that, saying that Barnes had good days and bad days but remained sharp.

“She had 90-plus years of memories, and they were all there,” Velarde said

INVESTIGATION

The family is split on how hard to allege wrongdoing by Velarde through the Postal Service. Marsha Rova said the public should know about the risks of vulnerable adults, but John Rova said jeopardizing Velarde’s livelihood wouldn’t help anybody.

“We have to move on,” John Rova said.

Velarde remains employed by the Postal Service, according to a statement from Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson, who wrote in an email that an investigation has been launched by the Office of the Inspector General “based on the most recent court decision.”

For Velarde’s part, she said it was an honor to know Barnes but wishes she hadn’t been named in the will.

“Look what happened to me,” Velarde said.

___

Information from: Kitsap Sun, https://www.kitsapsun.com/


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