Julia W. Lumpkin and Frank Lumpkin III sue each other over prominent father's estate

Attorney says UGA football tickets at heart of impasse

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comJune 19, 2011 

Frank G. Lumpkin Jr., the prominent Columbus insurance man and banker, was known for his unbridled generosity. In death as in life, he gave freely to the people he loved and the many causes he supported.

Lumpkin’s beloved alma mater, the University of Georgia, was one of many institutions that benefited from the six- and seven-figure bequests outlined in his testament, which included a $1 million gift to the University of Georgia Foundation and another $250,000 to the law school once named for his great-grandfather.

But as plainly benevolent as Lumpkin’s last wishes were -- he also left $1 million contributions to First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and the Columbus State University Foundation -- his estate remains unsettled more than 11 years after his death, and has become the subject of an intractable dispute between his two children. The impasse, according to one attorney on the case, has been a bitter disagreement over University of Georgia season football tickets.

Frank G. Lumpkin III and Julia W. Lumpkin, the Muscogee County probate judge, are co-executors of their father’s multimillion-dollar estate and the estate of their mother, Edith M. Lumpkin, who died about nine months after her husband in December 2000. Attorneys for both sides made clear that the generous bequests Frank Lumpkin Jr. made to longtime friends and organizations like the YMCA and Boy Scouts of America Chattahoochee Council have been paid in full. But the remainder of the estate -- a significant wealth that attorneys on both sides declined to estimate -- has not been distributed.

What has been a private stalemate now is threatening to become a public showdown between estranged heirs, who, until recently, could not even agree on a headstone to affix to their mother’s grave. After more than a decade of recriminations, the struggle has spilled into civil court in the form of dueling lawsuits filed last fall, both of which seek to remove the opposing sibling as personal representative of the estates. Each sibling accuses the other of breaching fiduciary duties and stubbornly delaying the administration of the estates.

Frank Lumpkin III blames his sister for a loss of nearly $7 million in pharmaceutical stocks that plummeted. He claims the family was advised to sell stocks in Schering-Plough from the estates before their value decreased, and he is suing Julia Lumpkin for the difference in damages.

“Nothing in my entire legal career approaches this,” said Frank K. Martin, an attorney of 46 years who represents Frank Lumpkin III. “I’ve never experienced anything like it, and it is astonishing to me because of Julie being probate judge. She knows better than anybody this should have never degenerated to this point.”

The wills were filed in Muscogee County Probate Court. Judge Julia Lumpkin recused herself from the proceedings after her brother filed suit last fall, but Martin said he thinks she should have recused herself sooner to avoid a conflict of interest.

Julia Lumpkin did not return a call seeking comment on the estates but responded to questions through her attorney, Richard A. Childs, who said there was no need for his client to recuse herself sooner because nothing had been contested.

“She recused herself as soon as it became an issue,” Childs said, adding in a separate phone interview that “Judge Lumpkin has done nothing wrong in any capacity.”

At the heart of the standoff, Martin said, is a fight over a number of University of Georgia season football tickets. Martin said Frank Lumpkin III got the tickets “through his daddy” and shares them with his sister each season. He accused Julia Lumpkin of refusing to close the estates until the tickets are transferred to her name.

“She’s holding the estates hostage over these football tickets,” Martin said in an interview. “It’s not an argument of ‘Do you or don’t you get the tickets.’ She wants them in her name, but they don’t have anything to do with the resolution of the estate of Mr. and Mrs. Lumpkin.”

Martin would not specify how many tickets the Lumpkins receive but said they are good seats.

“She’s really cutting her nose off to spite her face because she’s a 50 percent heir of the estate, and she’s holding up the distribution of money to herself,” Martin added, “and as you know it’s a considerable amount of money.”

Childs said the disagreement over the tickets is “one of the issues that will be resolved privately, or will be resolved through a court proceeding as the law and ethics require.” He declined further comment on the tickets.

“The estates of Mr. and Mrs. Lumpkin have been very timely and very expertly administered,” Childs said. “What remains to be done is to resolve outstanding issues among the heirs. We hope we can do that privately ... but if we can’t we’re ready to move forward in court.”

Martin said the estates likely could have been settled over the course of a year had both sides been cooperating. Childs disagreed, noting the estates were large enough to require the filing of a federal estate tax return. He said it could have taken up to three years under normal circumstances. The delay in this case is unusual, he said, but not by any means unprecedented.

The lawsuits recently were transferred from Probate Court to Superior Court. Judge Loring A. Gray Jr. of Albany, Ga., has been appointed to preside over the case.

Martin said the parties currently are taking depositions. He said he expects the case to go to trial. No court dates have yet been set.

Leaving a legacy

Frank Lumpkin Jr. cherished his Georgia Bulldogs so deeply that he once wrote a will bequeathing his entire assets to the university’s athletic department. Had he been killed an unmarried man fighting in Europe in World War II, “Georgia would have gotten a bank and a damned good one, too,” he quipped many years ago.

Born in 1907, Frank Lumpkin Jr. left an indelible mark on Columbus in his 92 years, carrying on the legacy of one of the most prominent families in the state. His great uncle, Wilson Lumpkin, served as the 35th governor of the Peach State and was a U.S. Congressman; his great-grandfather, Joseph Henry Lumpkin, helped establish the University of Georgia’s law school and also was the state’s first chief justice.

After attending Columbus High School, Frank Lumpkin Jr. graduated from Riverside Military Academy and enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1925. He played varsity football but rarely saw the gridiron. “I played every day but Saturday,” he used to say.

He had an unending love for the U.S. Army and wore the uniform for many years, serving under Gen. George S. Patton Jr. during World War II. He was a pilot, a member of the State Bar of Georgia and an Eagle Scout.

When he wasn’t cheering his Bulldogs to victory, Frank Lumpkin Jr. continued the family’s successful insurance business as president of the Willcox-Lumpkin Company, and served as president of the Trust Company of Columbus. He accumulated vast wealth but never hesitated to share it.

Frank Lumpkin Jr. left the insurance company -- founded by his family in 1848 -- to his son in his will and bequeathed to his daughter an amount equal to the value of the business.

When it came to sports, he loved UGA above all else and was one of the school’s most generous boosters. He also was a noted supporter of Columbus State University. The Frank G. Lumpkin Jr. Center, the school’s athletic arena, stands as a reminder of the $2 million he donated to the project. (In 2007, the U.S. Post Office on Milgen Road in Columbus also was named in his honor.)

He supported a number of other causes. In his will, he left generous contributions to the House of Mercy of Columbus, the Muscogee County Humane Society and the Columbus chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. He gave $15,000 to his former pastor’s wife and similar gifts to many longtime friends.

While those bequests have been paid, much of Frank Lumpkin Jr.’s wealth remains to be distributed to his children.

Family feud

Georgia law requires personal representatives of an estate to act unanimously. In his lawsuit against his sister, Frank Lumpkin III accuses Julia Lumpkin of dragging her feet and refusing to make decisions about the estates. Julia Lumpkin denied those allegations in court filings and attributed the delays to her brother’s “stubbornness and intransigence.”

In one of his most serious allegations, Frank Lumpkin III accused his sister of improperly using her office to obtain $90,000 from a bank account shortly after their mother’s death. His lawsuit, however, does not explain the allegation in detail, and Martin declined to elaborate on the claim. Frank Lumpkin III was in Florida last week, his attorney said, and could not be reached for comment.

Julia Lumpkin’s attorneys said in court filings that the money in question came from a certificate of deposit that matured and was “inadvertently” deposited to her bank account.

Frank Lumpkin III cited a number of examples of his sister’s alleged inaction, including detailed passages about the Schering Plough stocks. According to his lawsuit, financial advisers warned the family that the estates were too heavily invested in a single stock.

His lawsuit claims 44,000 shares were sold in December 2000 at a market price of $59.14 in order to pay estate taxes before the market value fell. Frank Lumpkin III claims he pushed for the sale of up to 50 percent of the estate’s Schering Plough holdings, and that Julia Lumpkin failed to respond to repeated requests for input on the proposal.

Julia Lumpkin’s attorneys dismissed that assertion as a “bogus claim” and maintained in court filings that Frank Lumpkin III “could have taken appropriate and timely action some 10 years ago.” Frank Lumpkin III’s lawsuit claims the stocks ultimately were disposed of at $19.35 per share, resulting in more than $6.9 million in damages to the estates.

“The stock market took a big drop and they lost a huge amount of money,” said Martin, who also represented Frank Lumpkin III after he was charged in 2008 with shooting a 16-year-old he found in his wife’s stolen SUV. (Frank Lumpkin III testified the shooting was an accident. A Muscogee County grand jury declined to indict him.)

Selling the house

The siblings offered conflicting accounts of their efforts to sell their parents’ Carson Drive home. Frank Lumpkin III’s suit claims that Julia Lumpkin agreed in 2009 to sell it for $425,000 to Ken Chung, but later refused to sign the contract, which “forced” Chung to occupy the house as a tenant.

Julia Lumpkin claims the sale was delayed because her brother was interested in buying the house from the estate but later changed his mind. She said the delay diminished the property’s value because the house deteriorated while it was vacant and took a hit during the housing collapse. Her counterclaim asserts that her brother should be removed as co-executor of the estate because he allowed Chung to occupy the house without accounting the rent to her. Martin, however, said the rent money has been kept in escrow to be calculated into the total estates.

In August 2009, the parties tried to mediate their differences before Judge Bill Smith but failed to reach an agreement, according to court documents. Frank Lumpkin III’s lawsuit attributed the impasse to “Julia Lumpkin’s refusal to discuss estate matters until a matter personal to her and unrelated to the estates was resolved to her satisfaction,” an allusion to the season ticket standoff. Julia Lumpkin’s attorneys moved in court filings to strike that passage as irrelevant.

Martin said the man many knew as Coach Lumpkin would be “very disappointed that the will which expressed his desires has not been carried out.”

Both sides can at least agree on one thing: the ordeal has taken a toll on seemingly everyone involved.

“The members of the Lumpkin family care for each other very much,” Childs said, “and we believe that they’re all distressed.”

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