The murder case against a Lee’s Summit lawyer checks off enough juicy prerequisites to draw CBS’ “48 Hours” and NBC’s “Dateline” to a small town in the Ozarks.
Dead millionaire father and his girlfriend. Late-night attack. High-dollar lakefront home. Lots of money. Contested will. Forged document.
That’s why those New York news crews and other media soon will be settling into motels along Interstate 44’s business strip in Lebanon, Mo. — to cover Susan Van Note’s double-murder trial.
But chugging along at the same time is William Van Note’s probate case, and it’s no ho-hum affair either.
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In fact, legal experts say the fight over his millions is unlike any they’ve ever seen. For starters, an argument is being made that the “slayer” rule — which says you can’t murder someone and then inherit their money — be extended to lengths never seen in Missouri.
When charged in a wrongful death suit, Susan Van Note unsuccessfully turned in a claim on her homeowner’s policy.
“It’s a quite unusual case in lots of ways, and I’ve been doing this a long time,” said David Holdsworth, an attorney appointed by the court to oversee the estate.
“It’s also very sad.”
First off, the person initially named to serve as personal representative of the estate — what used to be called the executor — was Van Note’s daughter, the person accused of killing him. The primary beneficiary of his will was his girlfriend, Sharon Dickson, who was killed in the October 2010 attack at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Susan Van Note, 48, was removed as personal representative after being indicted, but she had her way with her father’s money for two years before that happened. Then, when charged, she hired a prominent legal team three years after filing for bankruptcy.
Attorneys involved in the case are trying to sort out the millions, but a lot of cash is unaccounted for. The entire estate has been estimated at $8 million, though some say it could be more, a mishmash of homes, apartments, office buildings, cash, stocks, retirement accounts and promissory notes.
Van Note, 67 when he died, had been a Liberty businessman. Savvy, some say. He lent money to a lot of people.
“He was kind of a private banker,” Holdsworth said.
The probate part of the estate is roughly $3 million. An appeals court last year said Susan Van Note had sold several properties for her own use. On June 5, a special master assigned to the case determined that she still owed $405,525.80 in probate money.
Dickson’s son has intervened, saying he should inherit what would have been his mother’s share had she not been killed.
That’s where the slayer rule comes into play. Andrew Dickson’s attorney will argue that not only should Susan Van Note be barred, but also that no one in her family should receive what William Van Note intended to go to Sharon Dickson. Susan Van Note, who is divorced, has a son.
The outcome of all this, of course, could depend on the verdict in her double murder trial in August in Laclede County Circuit Court in Lebanon. But then she still faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Andrew Dickson.
For now, as the criminal case nears, the probate case continues to grow, quietly.
A request last week to see the case file in the Clay County Courthouse drew this response from a clerk:
“I’ll have to get a cart.”
William Van Note told the 911 operator that someone had hit him on the back of the head and that his girlfriend had been shot.
It was shortly after 11 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2010. Someone had entered his three-story home at Sunrise Beach, Mo.
Police would find Dickson, 59, dead from multiple gunshots and stab wounds.
Van Note, who had been shot in the head, was taken to University Hospital in Columbia. He died four days later, after his daughter showed up with a piece of paper — a durable power of attorney for health care — and asked doctors to remove her father from life support. The document was dated 2009.
According to court documents, investigators allege that Susan Van Note forged the document earlier that week using one like it she had prepared for a client. In her legal work, she specialized in end-of-life matters.
Her alibi for the night of the attack was that she was at home with her mother in Lee’s Summit, a two-hour drive from the lake. But prosecutors say her cellphone pinged a transmission tower near her father’s home five minutes after the attack.
A grand jury indicted her in 2012.
Prosecutors allege that she killed the couple because she wanted her father’s money and was angry that he had named Dickson as the executor and prime beneficiary.
William Van Note’s will, prepared in 2003, states that all his cash, retirement funds and three homes, including one in Florida, were to go to Sharon Dickson. It made no backup provision for her family if she died first.
A judge set bond at $1 million cash for Susan Van Note, an amount high enough to keep most people in jail.
But days later, someone showed up with the money. The attorney for Andrew Dickson soon asked a judge to remove Susan Van Note as personal representative of her father’s estate.
The judge agreed and ordered her to return any cash or other assets she had taken from the estate, including an initial $272,000. When she failed to comply, she was jailed for contempt. When she appealed, the judge set her bond at roughly the same amount owed — $275,000.
Her appeal failed and Holdsworth, who had been appointed to replace Van Note as personal representative, asked the court to give the bond money she had posted to the estate.
The judge agreed.
Meanwhile, Van Note’s murder case was moved from Boone County to Camden County. A judge there lowered her bond from $1 million to $250,000. She received the difference.
Later, when asked in court where that $750,000 went, Van Note answered: “Spent.”
One day last week, Holdsworth plopped an armload of files onto a table in his Liberty office.
“There’s a lot more,” he said.
For two years, he has been trying to sort out William Van Note’s estate, and he stressed that Susan Van Note did nothing wrong in accessing funds from the estate while she served as personal representative. Also, at that time she would have been the beneficiary.
“She distributed assets to herself, and now my job is to get those back,” he said.
Van Note acknowledged to a judge that she had used some of the money to post bond to get out of jail. Some involved in the case suspect her father’s money could be going to pay her defense lawyers.
A call to lead defense attorney Tom Bath of Overland Park was not returned. Kansas City lawyer John Christiansen, who is representing her in the probate case, could not be reached.
When asked if he would go after money Van Note had spent on her defense, Holdsworth said: “I will pursue the $405,000 wherever.”
In 2009, when Van Note filed for bankruptcy, the trustee couldn’t find a single asset to help satisfy nearly $400,000 in creditor claims. Van Note’s house was valued at $210,000, but her mortgage balance was $270,000.
After learning that Van Note had come up with $1 million dollars for bond, the trustee, Kansas City attorney Erlene Krigel, went looking for assets again.
“I discovered a bank account with $98,000 she had not disclosed,” Krigel said last week. “It was a joint account with her mother, so I only got half of it, but (I) was able to get some money for creditors.”
Krigel said she was monitoring all the Van Note cases.
The probate file includes a document showing that on Aug. 26, 2011, Susan Van Note paid out $73,000 to satisfy a claim filed by her mother against her father’s estate. The claim was filed Aug. 31, 2011.
That means the claim, for a lien on a property, was satisfied before it had been filed.
Van Note’s mother, Barbara Van Note, who was divorced from William Van Note, went to prison in 2005 for forging her own mother’s signature to a power of attorney document to get money from a trust fund account.
Early in 2013, Andrew Dickson entered the case.
On July 5 that year, Van Note argued that Dickson had no legal standing, referring to Sharon Dickson as “Mr. Van Note’s now deceased, unmarried significant other.” Her filing goes on to say: “Given that Ms. Dickson predeceased (William Van Note), the will distributes the entire estate to Ms. Van Note.”
Andrew Dickson’s attorney, Jerome Brant, who also is the attorney for Sharon Dickson’s estate, said they are asking the court to prohibit anyone “from inheriting, or intentionally vesting in an heir, the property William Van Note intended to leave Sharon Dickson.”
The murder trial was supposed to happen in early June, but a judge declared a mistrial after potential jurors discussed the case. Two days later, Brant filed a motion for a hearing in the wrongful death suit. It is scheduled for July 15.
A University of Missouri-Kansas City law school professor doesn’t think the extended slayer argument has ever been made in Missouri. The state does not have a slayer statute, but case law, or common law, serves the same purpose.
Julie Cheslik, who has taught estate law for 25 years, said such provisions typically bar only the slayer from benefiting. So in the Van Note case, because Sharon Dickson also died, the money would likely pass to Susan Van Note’s son.
“Courts don’t rewrite wills,” Cheslik said. “What they are asking is a stretch for the slayer rule. The problem for the son (Andrew Dickson) is that the will didn’t include a backup plan.”
Cheslik added, however, that she knows of two cases in other states where the slayer rule has been extended to the slayer’s heirs.
Holdsworth is glad he doesn’t have to decide all those questions regarding William Van Note’s money.
“Fortunately for me, I just have to wait for the judge’s order to come in and then distribute the assets.”