When the late billionaire publisher Richard Mellon Scaife initialed his will, he was under the “undue influence” of attorney H. Yale Gutnick, according to a court petition filed by the publisher’s daughter on Thursday that seeks to set aside the will.
The petition in Westmoreland County’s Orphans Court Division, filed by Jennie Scaife, 52, of Florida, zooms in on the February 2013 day on which Mr. Scaife’s will was executed.
The publisher was “in the bedroom of his home, where he had been essentially confined for a long period of time due to his illness,” according to the petition. “Mr. Scaife’s bodyguard, Matt Groll, directed by Gutnick, guided Mr. Scaife’s hand with a pen causing him to subscribe the initials ‘RMS’ ” on his will.
The will didn’t mention Ms. Scaife or her brother, David Scaife, 49, of Shadyside, the petition notes, leaving them neither money nor “any family heirlooms.”
“Many persons close to Dick Scaife, and a number of whom who knew Dick Scaife throughout his lifetime, have advised that the Will and Estate Plan of Richard Mellon Scaife are entirely inconsistent with his stated commitments and personal interests, and the management of his financial affairs,” wrote Peter Wolff and William Pietragallo, attorneys for Jennie Scaife, in a press release.
Instead, according to the petition, the will safeguarded Mr. Gutnick, the chairman of the board of the Tribune-Review newspapers, a trustee in several Scaife family foundations and executor of the estate.
Mr. Gutnick declined comment. Mr. Groll, executive director of the Allegheny Foundation, could not be reached.
As Mr. Scaife’s cancer developed, according to the petition, he “was heavily medicated, impaired, and groggy. … He was then exhibiting impairment of memory, impairment of intellectual functioning” and lost track of “his relationship with his family, and his closest friends, including his daughter Jennie Scaife.”
The petition claimed that Mr. Scaife’s newspapers, now led by Mr. Gutnick, were “losing tens of millions of dollars annually at a very minimum, and had collectively lost hundreds of millions, approaching a billion dollars, over the prior years.” Mr. Gutnick “used his confidential relationship to exert control” and to cause Mr. Scaife to leave an estimated $660 million “for the benefit of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,” according to the petition.
Unusually, Mr. Scaife placed his initials, rather than a signature, on the will. The witnesses to those initials included Mr. Groll and Mr. Scaife’s physician.
Undue influence is tough to prove, because it “is often subtle and hidden, so there’s usually not a lot of direct evidence of that,” said Michael J. Hussey, an associate professor of law at Widener University’s Harrisburg campus. If a judge tossed out the will, the assets would be distributed according to any prior will, or — in the absence of such a document — to the children.
Mr. Scaife’s will divided control of trust funds that held more than $700 million between the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Allegheny Foundation. Mr. Gutnick has been involved with both foundations. Mr. Scaife created a separate trust fund, with an undisclosed balance, to support the Tribune-Review.
A separate challenge filed by Mr. Scaife’s son and daughter in November in Allegheny County alleges that Mr. Gutnick and two other trustees improperly allowed Mr. Scaife to drain a trust fund of $450 million, largely to subsidize the Tribune-Review.