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Surprise heir sets off battle in court

Woman inherits a $32m estate Father said to live ‘other life’ in Hub

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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When Louis R. DeSanctis died three years ago, the multimillionaire owner of several private parking lots near Logan Airport left his relatives with a few surprises.

First, he never made a will. Then, his extended family of nieces and nephews discovered his estate was worth more than $32 million. Finally, they learned the uncle they always thought of as unmarried and childless had in fact been married and apparently had a daughter.

The final surprise was when Mary Verna DeSanctis said she was his daughter and claimed her inheritance.

The shocked extended family was irate when she declined to take a DNA test to prove whether she was really his daughter. They eventually sued Mary Verna DeSanctis, now a 79-year-old widow with two grown daughters who lives in South Carolina.

“It was the way she surfaced that was very suspicious,’’ said Jo-An DeSanctis of Concord, 58, who said she knew her uncle her whole life and never heard him say he had a daughter or a wife. “We were not trying to prevent her from inheriting, if she was really Lou’s daughter. We just wanted her to provide a mouth swab to prove it.’’

Despite their questions about her veracity, the Massachusetts Appeals Court last week affirmed a previous ruling by a Suffolk probate court that Mary Verna DeSanctis was the rightful heir to the estate, which amassed its wealth from 450 licensed parking spots, a plaster and drywall business, and a wholesale hardware building supply store, all in East Boston.

For their part, the nieces and nephews are considering their legal options and said they probably will appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“We were very disappointed by the court’s ruling,’’ said Chad P. Kindregan, a Boston lawyer who represents the extended family.

The court ruled that Mary Verna DeSanctis did not have to prove she was Louis DeSanctis’s biological daughter, even though it acknowledged that she was born out of wedlock and that he had described her as his “stepdaughter’’ in some documents. They said all that was needed to make her the rightful heir was that he had acknowledged his paternity.

The court cited as evidence a Rhode Island marriage certificate showing Louis DeSanctis had married Olive DeSanctis, the woman’s mother, in 1944. It cited records showing joint state and federal tax returns filed over the decades and that their marriage lasted until she died in 2006.

It also cited a sworn statement in 1944 by Louis DeSanctis identifying himself as Mary Verna DeSanctis’s father. The signed and notarized statement was made to amend her birth certificate, which he noted “does not fully and correctly state all the facts relating to said birth.’’ The amended birth certificate listed Louis DeSanctis as her father.

“The law clearly reflects the reality that being a parent to a child does not necessarily require biological parenthood: adopted children are treated no differently than biological children,’’ wrote Justice Peter J. Rubin in the decision.

He cited state law that says if a deceased person “has acknowledged paternity of a person born out of wedlock . . . that person is heir of his father.’’

He added the law “provides no basis for allowing other relatives greater authority to challenge the biological relationship.’’

Jo-An DeSanctis said there was no need to exhume her uncle’s body because they already had his DNA. She and her relatives questioned whether Mary Verna DeSanctis was a legitimate heir because they said she never visited, sent a card, or called their uncle while he was bedridden for months before he died.

“We all visited him, some of us on a daily basis,’’ Jo-An DeSanctis said. “Not only did we have no idea that she existed, but we didn’t hear from her until after he was in the ground, and it was her lawyer who called.’’

Hanson S. Reynolds, a Boston lawyer representing Mary Verna DeSanctis, described his client as a “frail lady who was just as shocked’’ as her father’s nieces and nephews about what she had never known about his life in Boston.

He said she had no idea he was sick and that they had spoken several weeks before he died in the summer of 2008 at age 93.

“His death came as a great shock to her,’’ Reynolds said. “He did not want Verna to know, and he told his secretary at his office in East Boston that under no circumstances should he tell her that he was in a hospital or nursing home. She was unaware that he was not well.’’

He said Louis DeSanctis’s sister, Lydia Bevis of Billerica, 85, knew of Mary Verna DeSanctis and approved of her taking over the estate. Bevis, who was originally named as administrator of the estate and is his only living sibling, did not return calls.

Reynolds said that Mary Verna DeSanctis and her mother lived in a house in Miami bought by Louis DeSanctis and that he spent several months a year living with them there. He said that the family took vacations together and that Louis DeSanctis attended both weddings of Mary Verna DeSanctis’s daughters.

He said Louis DeSanctis’s extended family rejected a settlement proposed by Mary Verna DeSanctis. He would not say the terms.

He added that she had no idea that her father had long-term relationships with other women in Massachusetts, at least one of whom he once described as his wife, according to court records.

“She was unaware of the other life her father was leading in Boston,’’ he said. “It’s a fascinating story, but it’s one that’s very painful for her.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.