(USA Today) - In 2006, LeRoy Ern, a retired factory worker who lived like a hermit, went to a Mequon financial adviser for help regarding a conservative investment.
He barely knew Blanche Berenzweig at the time. Still, within a few years, Berenzweig became Ern's power of attorney for health and medical issues, the sole beneficiary of two annuities, and executor and sole beneficiary of his estate.
When Ern died in April 2016 due to advanced dementia he was 92 years old. His annuities paid more than $1 million; bringing the total value of Ern's entire estate to more than $1.6 million, court and state records show.
Berenzweig arranged his cremation and private funeral — a service family members said they were not allowed to attend.
Today, Berenzweig is defending her actions on two fronts.
About a dozen of Ern's nieces and nephews are contesting the will in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, claiming Berenzweig illegally pressured Ern into making her the sole beneficiary. He was living an isolated life and suffering from dementia at the time the will was written, the family members say.
"She was laying a trap ... She must have known this guy was extremely vulnerable," said Kevin Demet, the lawyer for Ern's nieces and nephews.
"She's a shark."
Further, state insurance regulators in Madison are calling for her insurance agent's license to be permanently revoked and that she be ordered to pay a more than $2 million fine. After the regulatory charges were filed, Berenzweiggave up her license and said she was retiring — an action that did not stop the proceedings.
The money from Ern's annuities is currently frozen. Berenzweig will be ordered to give it back if she loses.
Berenzweig "abused the trust of Ern and acted in her own self-interest in naming herself the beneficiary of two annuities that she sold and was servicing for Ern," Lauren Van Buren, an attorney with the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, wrote in a December brief. She is prosecuting the claim before an administrative law judge.
Van Buren noted that during a November hearing, Berenzweig "admitted that she provided and filled out the May 12, 2010, and May 14, 2010, change of beneficiary request forms" making her the beneficiary of the annuities. She also sent the forms to the insurance companies.
State Insurance Commissioner Ted Nickel will decide next year what sanctions, if any, should be imposed on Berenzweig, the founder of BSB Financial Services Inc., in Mequon and San Diego, Calif.
Defending herself, Berenzweig testified at the November hearing that she urged Ern not to leave her his money and that she protested "very vigorously, I would say for two years."
"I didn't want the money," Berenzweig said "He insisted for an extended period of time."
Michael Ganzer, her lawyer, said it was perfectly legal for Berenzweig to be Ern's beneficiary. He said Ern regularly visited the 70-year-old Berenzweig at her office and considered her his best — and only — friend.
Berenzweig, the former president of the local association for certified financial planners, has repeatedly testified that she did not realize being named a beneficiary of a client's policy violated any state rules or regulations.
"When I was with LeRoy, I really don't remember that there were any laws about any of this," Berenzweig said in sworn testimony during a June deposition in the probate case.
But Joseph M. Belth, professor emeritus of insurance at Indiana University, said allowing a client to make his insurance agent a beneficiary is an obvious problem.
"To say that there is a conflict of interest is putting it mildly," said Belth, who has written extensively about the industry. "I'm going to give you advice, then I'm going to get your money."
Home in bad shape
Ern lived for decades with his girlfriend, Lillian Anderson, in a small two-bedroom home on the 4600 block of N. Parkway Ave. in Milwaukee. She died in the mid-90s, following a long illness.
Ern never married, had no children and was preceded in death by his four siblings.
After Anderson's death, Ern lived by himself and by all accounts, the house was in deplorable condition. The front door was unusable due to overgrown bushes.
Berenzweig hired Stowell Associates Inc., a home health care service, to work with Ern beginning in November 2013.
"There was no furnace, the home was heated by very old space heaters that had numerous electrical cords hooked up — some of those looked frayed," Susan Hurst, a supervisor at Stowell, said in testimony at the Berenzweig hearing. For heat, Ern used burners on the kitchen stove, she said.
He was obviously hoarding, Hurst said, noting that there were stacks of newspapers and other items throughout the home.
"In his bathroom, there was no pipe from the sink drain to the wall, so the water would run into the sink, (then) into a basin which he would then empty into the toilet," Hurst said, adding that he kept perishable food in his bedroom because the room was cold.
Berenzweig, who had never been inside Ern's home before 2013, was "very concerned about his living conditions," Hurst said.
Living as a hermit
During Berenzweig's November hearing, in testimony in the probate case and in interviews, Ern was repeatedly described as a stubborn man who lived in isolation and seldom spoke to family, especially after his siblings died. Those who did reach him said he was very hard of hearing and forgot names.
"Uncle LeRoy lived his life as a hermit but he did have a relationship with his family," Terri Kimbrough, Ern's niece, wrote in an affidavit this year.
Kimbrough wrote that from 2008 to 2012 she would frequently bring her mother to Ern's home.
"Every time I would take my mother to Uncle LeRoy's house, she would have to reintroduce me," Kimbrough wrote. "He never remembered who I was."
Ern was never close to his nieces and nephews and became more distant as the years passed.
"Did he take me fishing every Sunday and for ice cream? No, but he was my uncle — my great uncle," said Bryan Fick, 50, who said he would occasionally meet Ern for lunch in the 1990s. He said he last talked to his uncle around 2007, noting it was very difficult to reach him.
In 2005, the Oconto County Sheriff's Department failed to reach Ern to tell him his brother Milton had died and asked Milwaukee police to contact him. A Milwaukee officer's attempt to do so failed when nobody would answer the door, police records show.
When Ern's sister, Mildred Hanson, died in 2012, Billy Immekus, an Ern nephew, said he repeatedly tried to reach his uncle and even left a note in the mailbox. Immekus said he also left notes in Ern's mailbox when Carole Carter — Ern's sister and Immekus' mother — was in hospice care.
Ern never acknowledged receiving the notes, Immekus said.
From 2006 to 2013, police were called to Ern's house five times to perform welfare checks — with two of the calls coming from Berenzweig, records show.
Neighbors said they seldom saw him outside, except to care for his 1981 Buick LeSabre — a car he kept in mint condition — or to go to the grocery store.
During that time, Berenzweig said, Ern regularly visited her Mequon office where they chatted about history, articles he saw in the New York Times and shows he had watched on public TV.
"He was a fascinating gentleman who had a whole range of areas of interest," Berenzweig said during a 2016 deposition taken as part of the probate case. "We would talk about a Henry VIII. We talked about — he knew a lot about the planets and the stars, and we talked about that."
Berenzweig said she first met Ern in 1993 when she worked at a bank and helped him buy one of his annuities. Years later, after she left the bank and set up her own business, she helped him with the investment.
Berenzweig said Ern frequently told her she was the only person he trusted and that he had little to no contact with his family.
Things changed dramatically when Ern's Buick LeSabre was wrecked in a 2013 accident. Mequon police ticketed Ern and then called him at home for additional information.
"Ern was very hard of hearing," a Mequon officer wrote in report. "During a follow-up phone call with Ern, he asked (the) officer three times who he was talking to and could not provide (the) officer with insurance information because he forgot if he had automobile insurance."
After the crash, Ern's health deteriorated. Less than a month later, Hurst, his caregiver, called authorities when Ern did not respond to her knocks at the door.
Firefighters had to break down the back door, Hurst testified at Berenzweig's insurance license hearing. Ern argued with police, she said.
Ern was "very verbally resistant to fire department and police department attempts to help escort him out of the house," Hurst said.
Eventually, Hurst testified, police had to use handcuffs when they led him out of the house and took him to Froedtert Hospital. The next three years were spent in hospitals, rehab facilities, nursing homes and a hospice center.
Berenzweig made all major medical decisions for Ern, whose mental competency was deteriorating, medical records show.
A report written by Hurst in January 2014 noted that Ern said he did not know who Berenzweig was when she brought him a Christmas card that had been sent to his home.
He died April 13, 2016. The cause of death listed on the death certificate: "failure to thrive" due to advanced dementia.
Who has this control?
Berenzweig remained in charge of Erns's affairs after his death.
She arranged for a private service and cremation through Goodman-Bensman funeral home in Whitefish Bay. Some of Ern's family members complained they were not notified of his death nor told about the arrangements.
"I have this habit of looking at obituaries every day," Immekus recalled. "One day I happen to be scrolling through the paper and ... ‘LeRoy Ern! What?' ”
Immekus said he called the funeral home, but the person he talked with said the home was ordered not to give out any information.
"Who has this kind of control that says a family can't be together," Immekus said.
Debra Watton, Goodman-Bensman president, expressed skepticism at Immekus' description of the conversation, saying in that situation company procedure would call for the staff to try to accommodate the family by reaching out to Berenzweig.
Berenzweig testified that only two people were at Ern's funeral — Berenzweig and a woman she described as her "office mate."
"I never got to grieve," Fick said. "I never got to go to my uncle's funeral."
The family also does not have their's uncle's ashes as they are in Berenzweig's Las Vegas home.
'Blanche is nobody'
Seventeen days after Ern died, Berenzweig called Integrity Life Insurance Co. to make sure the money in the annuity remained liquid, according to a recording on file with the Insurance Commissioner's office.
"I don't want a one-year tie-up," Berenzweig told the customer service representative, according to the recording.
During the nearly eight-minute conversation, the representative repeatedly brought up the subject of beneficiaries to the annuity and explained how they should file claims.
Berenzweig never pointed out that she was the sole beneficiary.
Integrity issued a check for $276,648 to Berenzweig on May 27, 2016. The second annuity, this one written by Lincoln Benefit Life Co., paid $734,467 to Berenzweig on June 15, 2016, state records show.
Though there is no blood relationship between Berenzweig and Ern, she and Ganzer, her attorney, argue the money should go to her. She was his best friend, the only person he trusted and the person he chose to inherit his estate, they say.
Ern's nephews and nieces had virtually no contact with their uncle, she and Ganzer say.
Ganzer also argued that Ern had a closer relationship with the children of Anderson, his deceased girlfriend, than he did with his nieces and nephews.
Susan Drewitz, then a practicing attorney who shared Berenzweig's office suite, wrote Ern's will. She testified that Ern was competent and insisted that his estate go to Berenzweig.
"If it doesn't go to Blanche, I really almost don't care who it goes to," Drewitz testified Ern had told her.
Berenzweig set up the meeting for Drewitz to prepare Ern's will, according to testimony.
Demet argued his clients are family, giving them the only legitimate claim to the estate.
"They're asking for what they're entitled to under the law," Demet said. "Blanche is nobody.