Former TV Star's Estate Raided by Local Law Firm

Dateline: 2001-2003, Phoenix, Arizona

Pretty Mis FrancesAn extraordinary loss of money and estate assets took place right after the death of famous former TV star Dr. Frances Horwich.  Dr. Horwich was more commonly known as the "Ding Dong School" host on national television in the early 50's and 60's. But to the hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls, she was simply known as "Miss Frances". It was a shame that her attorney prepared living trust did not protect her estate assets from a long term and prolonged probate by her trusted attorney assisted estate administration.

No, this headline never ran in The Arizona Republic but it should have!  After almost two years of weekly visits to her home that billed out at full firm billing rates, the estate ran out of cash to pay the lawyers. The entering of non trust owned assets into probate in Maricopa county was the reason for the delay.  It appears the law firm that prepared her living trust did not do a very good job of assisting the "funding" aspect necessary for a modern living trust to perform properly at death. 

Only when the check book went dry, was the firm ready to release her real and personal property to the rightful heirs.  Then, and only then.  There was no cash left to keep paying the firm's monthly billings. That heir is my current client.

In fact, the estate was drained out of it's cash holdings (well over $100,000) and was in the hole another $10,000 for attorney billings when the keys to her home were turned over late in 2002. Those keys cost the heir $10,000 out of their own pocket until such time we could sell some of the inherited assets. Yes, they raided all the cash in the estate for "administration fees", then put it in the hole before deciding it was time to let go and declared it "settled".

Those belongings included 1000 year old American Indian woven baskets, very old pottery from famous New Mexico pottery makers, popular artist paintings and works, unusual collectibles and antiques, as well as a tremendous amount of bells and other TV show memorabilia.  She had her own authored books, records, sewing patterns, and other marketing items created during the popular years of the TV show.

The client had no idea on what to do with these items or how to sell or market them.  So, I was hired as the estate agent following the release of Dr. Horwich's estate by the law firm.  I agreed to take over all the responsibility of marketing the collections and items that the heir choose not to keep personally. It was decided to do so in a public auction environment.  A quick email to founder and owner Arlan Ettinger at Guernsey's brought back a big box mailing of fantastic auction books done for past auctions for famous people. Originally, he wanted the estate!  He sent past catalog books of past auctions for Princess Diana, Elvis, President Kennedy, even an auction for Mickey Mouse!!!  But, just when we thought he would be sponsoring an auction for Miss Frances, his childhood TV mom -- his interest level waned and we had to look elsewhere.

I then offered the memorabilia items to every major auction house in the world and many had interest, including the biggest and oldest auction firm in the world. But, interest levels were only high on certain items. Heard museum gave great interest in some of the items and gave valuations to us. The best program was decided on and we used a local auction house with local, national, and international exposure by creating a custom website and online video promotion to market Dr. Horwich's estate items for sale. 

Our firm produced her entire collection and artifacts on an online catalog with pictures and item descriptions.  It was a big hit, as people all over the country and perhaps beyond called in bids on items for sale in a two day auction.  The first auction item up for bid, a "storyboard" was unique with "Miss Francis" being written into the Peanuts cartoon.  There were multiple versions created and signed by Charles Shultz, but the first one sold at auction at $ 6,000!  Many other items got top dollar and of course, like any auction, other bidders were rewarded with bargain pricing on certain items.  All of her remaining shows on 16 or 35 mm film were for sale, but they didn't meet the minimum opening bid. They were later donated to a museum in her home town with other remaining memorabilia that didn't sell.  Overall, it was a big success with local television stations covering the event as well.

The whole point in this article is to honor this wonderful woman who was voted one of the most important and successful women in the world during the 1950's.  She also won the Peabody and many other distinct honors, including being the first woman producer and director for children's shows on NBC!  But, also to use what happened in her estate as an "example" for you to be careful who you trust or hire to administer an estate here in Arizona. (or elsewhere as far as that is concerned)

When Dr. Horwich became elderly and trusted a law firm to protect her from probate in Arizona with a living trust instrument, something went horribly wrong. Obviously, communication must have broken down and the estate fell into probate anyway. Having touched and handled every major artifact in her home, I can attest that it was apparent to me that what actually happened was the exact opposite of what she would have wanted.  Her organization skills and neatness were obvious to us as we worked with estate artifacts and documents.  She didn't miss a beat right up until the very end!  She pre-planned and trusted a firm to keep the costs down so that the heir would receive more value.  A large percentage though was cut out for lawyer fees that could have been avoided had they performed properly in assisting and checking on the funding of her living trust.

Buying a Living Trust and still going through probate, sadly, is a common occurrence in our state.  It creates an estate nightmare for heirs and loved ones but provides for a huge money train for lawyers acting as Trustees or Executors in estate administration tasks.  They charge up to full firm billing rates for simple things such as checking on a home once a week to be sure it hasn't been broken into. 

To this day, I feel like the last laugh was in the inside halls of that law firm that administered her trust and allowed the estate to be probated.  Even the appraisals they obtained during this long period of administration became either inaccurate or out of date by the time the keys to the kingdom changed hands...

Editorial by M.D. Anderson, Acting Horwich Estate "Asset" Agent

(Yes, a few select items are still for sale by the family, including the original bell used each day on her TV show!)

To honor this great lady who I never was privileged to meet personally, I publish these one of a kind pictures of the work our firm did with the heir to photograph nearly 4000 artifacts and post them online for the auction we later held.  It was a real joy and honor, one I will have not forgotten. The awards are direct copies out out of her scrapbook!

 The lesson to learn here is simple:  Inspect what you expect out of your financial advisor. 

Miss Frances with Fan Mail

Date of Birth: 07/16/1907

Date of Death: 07/22/2001

Age at Death: 94
Cause of Death:
Heart failure

Last Update: 07/08/2016

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