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Attorney And Innocent Client Killed Over $100,000 Will Error

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MARCH 22, 1999 VOLUME 6, NUMBER 38

Walter V. Shell, a 71 year old man from Johnson City, Tennessee, blamed attorney John D. Goodin for a mistake in Shell’s ex-wife’s will. Last Thursday Shell tracked the lawyer down and shot him in the head.

Lawyer Goodin, 81, was a well-known lawyer in Tennessee. He had been in practice in Johnson City for sixty years, and had served as a city judge for five of those years.

In addition to Goodin, Shell shot and killed Paul S. Keyser, III. According to police, Keyser, 35, was a client of Goodin’s and had no connection to Shell or his wife’s estate. Apparently, he was simply an innocent bystander when Shell took his revenge.

Shell was divorced from his wife, Katie Roselle Shell. Nonetheless, the two had remained friendly, and Ms. Shell had even named her ex-husband as executor in her will. Then, last November, she contacted Goodin about changing that will.

Goodin had visited Ms. Shell in the hospital on November 9, and had prepared an amendment for her to sign. In the amendment, she named a friend as her executor, rather than Mr. Shell. The amendment also provided that some property and money would go to Mr. Shell, and some to their two grown daughters. Finally, it directed that any remaining money be given to Mr. Shell.

Ms. Shell owned about $100,000 worth of stock, which was not specifically mentioned in her will or the amendment. After her death, the couple’s two daughters argued in probate court that her stock was not “money.” When the probate judge agreed with that interpretation, it meant that the will did not provide for disposition of her stock, and it therefore went to her daughters, who were her next of kin.

Mr. Shell blamed attorney Goodin for the ambiguity in his ex-wife’s will, and for the resultant loss of the stock. Apparently, that was his motivation for killing Goodin. After the killings Mr. Shell turned himself in to the police, and he has now been charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He is currently being held in jail without bond.

Ironically, Goodin was interviewed about his plans for retirement in 1984, when he was 66. At the time, he told the Johnson City Press that he had no plans to retire because he was “addicted” to his work. “I’ve known very few lawyers who had the guts to quit when they should,” he told the newspaper then. “I hope I have sense enough to retire or quit before I become a liability to anybody that comes in to get me to represent them.”

Assuming that Ms. Shell really intended to include her stock in the bequest to her ex-husband, it would have been easy to prevent the incorrect legal result. Sometimes, in the desire to list and dispose of individual assets, it can happen that no provision is made for unidentified property. Any well-drafted will should include a “residuary devise,” indicating where any remaining property should go. Such a provision takes care of property which might be overlooked, acquired after the will is written or improperly described in the will itself. By saying “I leave all the rest of my estate to Walter Shell,” Ms. Shell could have ensured that her stock certificates would go to her ex-husband.

In probate proceedings, it is generally the goal of the court to determine and effect the decedent’s true wishes. Sometimes, however, technical failures can lead to unintended results. Having a lawyer draft the will should, but does not always, prevent errors such as the one in this tragic case.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.