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.