Perils of Probate – Part 12: Special Administrator in Probate Case Abuses Power

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Wendolyn Wilburn and her husband, Taruck Joseph Ben-Ali, had worked hard for the eight-unit apartment building Ben-Ali purchased on Ashby Avenue in 1993. Wilburn worked as a Sales and Marketing Executive and husband Ben-Ali, as a MSW, Social worker and counselor at Berkeley Youth Alternates. With their apartment building life was sweet, as their 8 unit building turned into a virtual “Golden cash-cow”.

Life for Wilburn and her children went south when Ben-Ali was murdered by his father in December 2008 and all of his property went to probate court.

Special administrator Duane Leonard was assigned to the case, and upon his assignment Wilburn’s life, already devastated by the loss of her husband, turned into a virtual nightmare.

According to Wilburn,  “Duane Leonard, like other white people in power saw a wealthy black family and plundered our estate at his pleasure and leisure. When I challenged him about $62,000 he owed our estate, he said, “Even if I owe it, there’s nothing you can do about it”.

And he was right. When Wilburn petitioned Judge Thomas Reardon to investigate Leonard’s record keeping, he refused and closed the books.

Wilburn estimates that out of the 1.8 million estate she received approximately $400,000, with step-daughter Brittney Desmond receiving the same amount.

During the probate process from 2009 to 2014 the Ashby Avenue property continued to generate approximately $45,000 in profits a year according to a Certified Public Accountant, yet Wilburn never saw a penny of that money, as Duane lied again stating that the building had made no money.

“The horror of what Leonard did was he stole my legacy and my son’s legacy. When I offered to buy out my step-daughter’s portion of the estate, Leonard lied and stated Brittaney’s mother would not agree to allow me to purchase her portion of the property,” said Wilburn. “In addition Leonard undersold what my building was worth.”

Wilburn’s case is not rare. African-American families continue to see their estates destroyed, first by the mortgage meltdown where 7% of African-American families lost their homes in 2008 compared to 4% for whites. Recently the Probate Court Reform Movement, comprised of 78 African American families filed complaints with District Attorney Nancy O’Malley for what they see as the banks trend of plundering black estates continue in the probate court system.

“This massive transference of wealth continues unabated,” says Wilburn. “I’ve written a book about my husband’s murder entitled “The Grave Wall,” that tells the story of how my husband’s father murdered him and stuffed his body in a wall, after stealing $250,000 from us by writing bad checks. Despite my husband’s father leaving a note confessing everything before killing himself, Duane Leonard wouldn’t even notice Bank of America regarding the theft!

She added, “What I’m going through is horrific. It’s time for me to write another story about the death of my estate at the hands of the probate court, another story of living while Black and how America’s treacherous social structure works to keep Black people oppressed and destitute despite our best efforts.”

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