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Her Cousin Left Rose More Than Three-Quarters of a Million Dollars. Five Years Later, She Hasn’t Seen a Dime.

Yet the Bronx public administrator for the “widows and orphans” court has already spent more than half of the money.

SHARE Her Cousin Left Rose More Than Three-Quarters of a Million Dollars. Five Years Later, She Hasn’t Seen a Dime.

The courthouse

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When Gloria Montague died in 2018 at the age of 88, her will left her estate to two cousins. One cousin had died, however, so all of Gloria’s estate — including a large two-bedroom condo and the family’s jewelry — was destined for her other cousin, retired teacher Rose Montague, 79.

Now, more than five years later, Rose has yet to receive anything from an inheritance that she’s just learned had been valued at $762,775. Yet she is due to receive just $394,026, because the other roughly half of her inheritance had already been spent by the Bronx public administrator, Matilde Berrios Sanchez. 

More than $250,000 to date has gone to paying outside counsel, Bronx law firm Rodman and Campbell, as well as funeral expenses and fees for appraisers, brokers, and the public administrator’s own commission, according to a final judicial decree filed earlier this month and other court records. 

Another $100,000 went to paying common charges and property taxes for the condo in the nearly three years it took the public administrator to sell it for $675,000 in 2021. That was significantly less than the $750,000 Gloria had paid in 2012 for the spacious two-bedroom apartment in Riverdale with a terrace overlooking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. 

‘I Haven’t Heard From Her Since’

Public administrators are appointed by a county’s judge to the Surrogate Court to take control of the estates of New Yorkers who die without a will, or without someone willing and qualified to execute their will. They were once described by a New York Times columnist as politically connected “guardians who make handsome fees” from estates, while also paying fees to outside lawyers and others.

Those judges, for what is sometimes referred to as “widows and orphans court,” are elected to 14-year terms, but often in effect are selected by a political party machine.

Rose had just returned home to Canada from Gloria’s funeral in New York when she heard for the first time, from public administrator Sanchez, that she was named in the will at all.

“She’s very forthcoming and I didn’t let her run over me,” Rose told THE CITY over the phone about her late cousin. “People thought we were sisters because we looked and acted alike. We loved each other. It was a love-hate relationship. And that’s why I was stunned to find out that my name was on her will.”

After Sanchez told Rose her name was on the will, Rose consulted a lawyer before signing a document giving the public administrator control of her cousin’s estate, to spare herself the stress of sorting out her cousin’s affairs from another country. 

“She said it would be 12% and it would be easier for me to do that, since I lived up here,” in Canada, Rose recalled Sanchez telling her, “and everything was happening here in New York City.”

Sanchez told her at the time that it was too early to say what the condo and jewelry would be worth, according to Rose.    

But, “I haven’t heard from her since,” Rose said, even as she has regularly received legal papers detailing individual expenses. “I have called her, approximately, maybe about seven or eight times.” 

Just before Rose signed the forms making Sanchez the administrator of Gloria’s estate, she asked the public administrator to send several items of sentimental value to her, including photo albums, a music box and paintings. Sanchez, Rose said, told her to send a list. 

“Now I haven’t seen it since then,” said Rose, referring to the list that she promptly sent. “They have not initiated one call to me.”

Rather, she said, “They said I would have to wait until things are ready and they would get back to me. But they never did.” 

In fact, Rose says that she first learned that her inheritance had been valued at more than three-quarters of a million dollars when THE CITY reached out to her this month. Rose was listed as Gloria’s sole heir on the Surrogate Court’s 2020 list of estates that it still hasn’t paid out after more than two years, but the Montague family was missing from the 2021 report.   

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the Bronx Surrogate Court led by Judge Nelida Malave-Gonzalez, said the Montague case will remain a “pending matter,” and declined to answer questions about it.

Even with the final judicial decree finally issued, nearly five years after Gloria’s death, Rose is still looking for answers — not least when she will actually receive what remains of her inheritance.  

“I didn’t know,” she said of the total value of the estate. “This is what I was searching for and asking for. This is the mystery. They kept coming up with fees and I didn’t understand. You spent five years coming up with this?” 

From time to time, Rose said that she would also reach out to Jessica Nelson, an attorney at the firm Rodman and Campbell, whom the public administrator hired to do work on the case.

“I’ve always been the one to initiate the communication,” Rose recalled, and “she would give me a bunch of technical lawyer jargon,” without mentioning developments, like the sale of Gloria’s condo, until months after the fact. 

“I didn’t let her know that I knew it sold,” Rose continued. “And then in a letter that I initiated, she casually said the condo was sold last year. My gosh, they didn’t even let me know.”

Attorneys at Rodman and Campbell have contributed approximately $21,650 to The Bronx Democratic County Committee since 2009. The law firm earned a fee of about $35,000 for its work on the Montague will, according to legal documents.

The law firm did not answer questions from THE CITY about the case or its contributions to the county committee, citing attorney-client privilege. 

‘The One That Really Sacrificed’

Inside of Gloria’s apartment sat a collection of jewelry long treasured by the Montagues. 

After immigrating from Jamaica, Rose recalled, her uncle, Gloria’s father, quickly opened a jewelry store. It stood on what was then Seventh Avenue in Harlem, and is now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, named for New York’s first Black member of Congress. 

“He came over on a boat from Jamaica when he was very young,” said Rose, who asked THE CITY not to print any photos of her or her family. “And he slept in the back of that store for 60 years in order to make it.” 

“Uncle Lucius had a 5-foot-tall safe in his jewelry store and it had all kinds of jewelry in it,” Rose recalled. In 1998, he retired at the age of 92.

When Lucius died two years later, his jewelry went to Gloria, his only child. 

“He was the one that really sacrificed when he came to the U.S. He gave up everything,” Rose said, recalling the many hours she spent in the store listening to her uncle. “He didn’t retire from that jewelry store until he was 92 years old. And then to see it melted away, it feels bad.”

‘You Should Be Afraid of Me’

Rose carried her uncle’s work ethic into decades as a teacher and a civil rights activist, working for more than 20 years to help people who’d been incarcerated for violent crimes before they’d turned 18 get their lives back on track. 

“I would go in there with my carrot sticks,” said Rose, an active and nutrition-conscious septuagenarian, who said she felt traumatized at times from hearing horror stories about what these teens had experienced. 

“They said, ‘Hey, aren’t you afraid of us?’ I said, ‘You should be afraid of me. I’m from Chicago,’” which is where she grew up.

Rose then recalled visiting Gloria at her condo for Christmas in 2017, to help organize some of the family’s jewelry that had been boxed away since Lucius’ death. Caught up in conversation, they never got to the organizing, so Rose promised to return in April to finish what they started. It was the last time she saw her cousin. 

“Our fathers — they were very close to each other and she was the sister I didn’t have. And I have two pieces of jewelry she gave me” years earlier, said Rose. “It’s hard.”

She choked up. 

“It’s hard because I didn’t grieve for her. I did but I didn’t have time. Now I’m failing and I miss her,” said Rose, beginning to cry. “I was wondering when this was going to happen and I didn’t want to think about it.”

But, she said, “I needed to do that.”

Those five years have not been easy on Rose.  A year and a half ago, she underwent brain surgery to remove an adenoma, a benign tumor that can become cancerous. 

“Stress built up in my head until one day I wasn’t able to stand up,” Rose recalled. “I had no heart disease. I was tested. I have no diabetes. I have no other cancers. Nothing. But then they found this tumor in my head,” said Rose. She has tried to ease the anxiety by returning to the painting she studied more than a half century ago at the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Nonetheless, Rose says she’s intent on getting what is rightly hers. 

“If they’re waiting for me to die, they’ve got a long wait. I’m determined to live,” she said, laughing.

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