Hafer named in estate lawsuit

Stepchildren say assets were shifted

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The children of the late John "Jack" Pidgeon sued former state treasurer Barbara Hafer Tuesday, claiming that Ms. Hafer, their stepmother, took advantage of their father's declining health to shift more than $900,000 from his children and grandchildren to herself and her daughter.

Mr. Pidgeon, the beloved former headmaster of Saltsburg's Kiski School, died in 2008. Ms. Hafer, a former Allegheny County commissioner, has served two terms as state auditor general, two as state treasurer and entered numerous other political races.

Before Mr. Pidgeon and Ms. Hafer married in 1986, she had one child. He had three, the lawsuit's plaintiffs: John Pidgeon Jr. of Fairfax County, Va., and Regan Houser and Kelly Pidgeon, both of Indiana County.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas. In it, Jack Pidgeon's children claim that as their father battled Parkinson's disease and dementia, Ms. Hafer pressured and misled him to rearrange his finances to benefit her, allegedly complaining that his children might receive more money than she would after he died.

The children also say that they believe their father was "of weakened intellect" at the time of several disputed financial changes, and that he was "dependent upon and controlled by" Ms. Hafer.

Ms. Hafer's lawyer, Richard J. Federowicz, said the allegations in the complaint have no merit.

"[Ms. Hafer] was a friend and a mentor to the children and a grandmother to the grandchildren, and had a great relationship," he said. "In fact, we're going to be able to establish that Jack and Barb, over their marriage, probably gave over $1 million in gifts to the children, grandchildren and their spouses."

Mr. Federowicz and Ms. Hafer's other attorneys plan to challenge the legal sufficiency of the suit.

"Jack Pidgeon was a strong-willed individual who always was in good mental health," Mr. Federowicz said. "Barbara did not exert undue influence over him. ... He was alert and active."

"In fact, he was coaching the IUP swimming team a year before he passed away," he added. "We just can't understand how they could claim that he was of weakened intellect."

The children's lawsuit concerns two sources of money: a retirement account opened by Jack Pidgeon in the 1960s, and four college savings accounts he opened for his grandchildren.

According to the complaint, the retirement account was valued in 2009 at more than $870,000. In 1985, Jack Pidgeon designated his three children as the primary beneficiaries of the account, each to receive one-third of the balance after his death. In 1995, he added Ms. Hafer as a fourth beneficiary but later removed her.

These decisions "were made with the knowledge and participation" of Ms. Hafer, the lawyers for the children wrote. In Jack Pidgeon's will, he provided that his wife should receive the real estate she held jointly with him, and he also transferred another account titled in his name to joint ownership with her.

Still, on "numerous occasions," Ms. Hafer "expressed anger and frustration" at the idea that her husband's children might receive funds equal to or more than what she might receive, according to the complaint.

In January 2006, Jack Pidgeon was told he had Parkinson's disease, and Ms. Hafer, a former nurse, became his caregiver. According to the complaint, he was also eventually diagnosed with dementia and depression.

As he became "progressively homebound," the lawyers for the children wrote, "these conditions made him very vulnerable, dependent upon and susceptible to influence by his wife ... ."

In May 2006, Jack Pidgeon apparently made major changes to the retirement account, according to the complaint. First, he removed his children and made his wife the sole primary beneficiary. Second, he executed a Change of Authorization form for the account, making Ms. Hafer the only person able to obtain information about the funds.

The children claim this hid the shift until after their father died, and that their father continued to tell people they were the account's beneficiaries.

The second set of disputed financial moves involves four college savings accounts created for Jack Pidgeon's grandchildren.

He established the accounts in 2000 using $100,000 and designated his wife as their custodian. But according to the complaint, after his death, Ms. Hafer closed two of accounts, transferred their balances to a third and substituted her daughter, Bethany Hafer, as the beneficiary.

Mr. Federowicz said Barbara Hafer was "particularly upset" by these allegations.

"We've communicated to the other side that she ... continues to intend to use that for the grandchildren's education," he said.

"It was never transferred to Beth," he added. "Her name was put on as a beneficiary in the event that something happened to Barbara, and that was all explained to the other side."

In the complaint, the lawyers for Jack Pidgeon's children request a jury trial and ask that the court void the changes to the retirement account. They also ask the court to impose trusts on Ms. Hafer's assets and the college savings accounts, to be used to pay Jack Pidgeon's children and grandchildren the value of the proceeds they believe are due. Finally, they ask the court to award an additional judgment in excess of $25,000 plus legal costs.

Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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