Seeking a larger share of an elderly widow's estate, the Maryland School for the Blind is suing her main beneficiary -- a Timonium man who had been a longtime family friend and financial adviser.
Attorneys for the school alleged that Henry F. Hartlove exercised "undue influence" when his father, a retired attorney, helped the late Claude Faye Bass prepare her will three years ago. When she died in November 1992, the widow of golf pro Johnny Bass left $170,000 to Mr. Hartlove and the residue of her estate, about $44,000, to the school.
In its lawsuit, scheduled for trial today before Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl, the school asks for the money Mrs. Bass left to Mr. Hartlove, plus $1.2 million in damages.
The school's attorney, Michael J. Kelly, argued in court papers that the school is entitled to Mr. Hartlove's share of the estate. He also alleges that Mrs. Bass was in a "diminished physical and mental capacity" when she died at the age of 75 and therefore was "deprived of her freedom of choice to dispose of her estate in accordance with her wishes."
He said Mr. and Mrs. Bass had befriended some blind students several decades ago and included the school in her will. He also argued that Mr. Hartlove's father violated the rules of professional responsibility when he prepared Mrs. Bass' will because he was not a disinterested third party.
At issue are four bank accounts with balances totaling $170,000 that were held jointly by Mrs. Bass and Mr. Hartlove. When Mrs. Bass stayed at her Florida home during the winter, Mr. Hartlove paid her bills using those accounts.
"He laid claim to those accounts when she died," Mr. Kelly said. "They should be paid to the Maryland School for the Blind."
Mr. Kelly, a member of the board of directors at the Maryland School for the Blind, said the action was not prompted by financial problems at the 142-year-old institution for children and adults with visual problems and multiple disabilities.
In recent years, the state has reduced its funding and the school has undergone a bitter reorganization. A state senator is calling for an investigation into the $10 million the school receives.
Mr. Hartlove's attorney said the lawsuit has no foundation.
"We believe the attorney for the Maryland School for the Blind is grasping at straws," said Oren D. Saltzman.
"They were longtime friends," he said of the relationship between his client and the Bass family. Mr. Bass died in 1981.
"When my client's father prepared Mrs. Bass' will, he had been retired several years from active practice," Mr. Saltzman said. "The father did their legal work in previous years and for no compensation."
Mr. Saltzman refused to discuss details of the case.
Mr. Hartlove, an accountant who is now an administrator for a computer software company, had known the Basses since 1960, when he was a teen-ager and his family became neighbors and friends of the couple on Daleview Court in Timonium.
The Rev. Eric Peacher, a Methodist minister who lived a few doors from the elderly widow, said yesterday that he knew Mrs. Bass for 11 years before her death. He described her as being "in very sound mind -- she had a good long- and short-term memory."
"On many occasions, Mrs. Bass told me she depended on Hartlove," he said. "I saw him and other members of his family at the Bass house on many occasions."
Ruby Rausa, another neighbor, said that after Mrs. Bass' husband died, Mrs. Bass "remained mentally sharp when I talked with her."