EAST GRAND FORKS — The 2010 will of Randy Driscoll left his house and a $2.4 million portion of his estate to his wife, Cindy Driscoll. He left his rural East Grand Forks farm property, in his family for six generations, to his nephews.
But after Randy’s death on Dec. 7, 2015, his surviving family members said they were shocked and distraught to learn the family property and his estate, valued at more than $5 million, had been left to the Sacred Heart Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Sacred Heart Church in East Grand Forks. The Driscolls were not members of the church, but Randy's estate planning lawyer, Gerard Neil, sits on the church's board of directors.
Instead of a $2.4 million bequest, Cindy Driscoll received a rifle and pistols, use of the house, items of personal property and grounds-keeping equipment during her lifetime, income of $54,000 per year, up to $5,000 per year for a vacation and full-coverage health insurance, in total valuing about $300,000.
Neither Cindy Driscoll nor Randy's brother Bruce, appointed by Randy as his personal representative, were allowed to see the final will and trust before Randy Driscoll's death. They say he never would have drafted such a will.
“He always said I would want for nothing,” Cindy Driscoll said, recalling the aftermath of the will reading. “And now, all of a sudden, I have nothing.”
In a civil suit recently filed in Polk County District Court, she is seeking at least $700,000 in damages from Neil for malpractice, negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, and a slate of other allegations. She alleges that shortly before Randy’s death in 2015, Neil redrafted Randy Driscoll's will and trust and allowed him to sign the documents while he was not lucid, and gave Cindy Driscoll papers to sign consenting to her own disinheritance without telling her what they were.
“I thought I was signing papers that were about the estate to save Randy taxes. (That) is what I thought I was signing,” Cindy Driscoll said, her voice wavering. “I never got a chance to read them.”
According to the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office, the Sacred Heart Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in May 2014, and Neil is its registered agent. The Driscoll family’s civil complaint identifies him as a founding member of the foundation as well.
On Friday, Sacred Heart Church leadership was not available for comment, and other members of the foundation board could not be reached. Neil did not return calls for comment that day, and neither did his attorney, Peter Zugar.
St Paul-based attorney Patrick O’Neil, who is representing Cindy Driscoll, specializes in legal malpractice and litigation against other lawyers.
“We’re in what I call a self-policing profession. Lawyers need to be held accountable,” O’Neil said. “I have been doing this for 25 years, representing clients injured by their lawyers, and I would say this is one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen.”
An initial 2017 lawsuit to nullify the will ended in a settlement in which the Sacred Heart Foundation received $1.5 million, approximately 10 times the amount they received in the 2010 will. The 2020 suit against Neil seeks the remaining $700,000 Cindy Driscoll would have received in the 2010 will that she did not receive in the 2018 settlement.
The 2010 will was drafted by Neil's law firm shortly after Randy Driscoll was diagnosed with leukemia, and that was the version family members found in his rolltop desk after his death, Bruce Driscoll said.
Randy Driscoll's health deteriorated over the next five years, and he died in 2015 after a rejected bone marrow transplant. In his final months, Cindy Driscoll said he was sick from chemotherapy, on more than 60 medications a day, and too impaired to consent knowingly to changes made to his will and trust.
According to the complaint, a month before Randy Driscoll's death, Neil presented Cindy Driscoll with a consent and waiver form, which he instructed her to sign while her husband lay dying in the bed next to her. She said she was never advised to get an attorney, and that she believed Neil represented both her and her husband — she said she wasn't told Neil only represented Randy. The complaint alleges that when she asked Neil if she should sign the consent and waiver, he told her she should. Under this legal advice she signed the document, finalizing her disinheritance.
Bruce Driscoll said after his brother died, he was the first to learn the contents of the 2015 will in a one-on-one meeting with Neil.
"I was stunned," he said. "I heard myself say, 'there's nothing I can do to fix this, is there?' And he said, 'there's nothing you can do about it.'"
Which, O'Neil added, was incorrect legal advice. There are processes to contest wills.
Cindy Driscoll said her hope is that by telling her story, she can save another grieving person from being taken advantage of.
"I want them to know to be careful, and don't trust everybody when you're in such great distress," she said. "Never sign anything when you're not in your right mind and you don't have an attorney by your side. I trusted that man, I thought he worked for Randy and me and he was doing the best. He did the best for himself."