Few items carry more sentimental value to their children as the jewelry their parents once wore.
But what if that jewelry is worth at least $5.5 million — if not millions — more?
Once missing, the jewels belonging to Palm Beach renowned socialite Mary Montgomery now sit in a safe deposit box.
Her daughter, Courtnay Montgomery, claims some of the jewels were given to her by her mother, her attorney says. So the brooches, necklaces and rings appear to be headed for yet another courtroom showdown.
“Some people may be looking at every item for its monetary value, but if you lost your father or the connection with your mother, certain things might have an emotional value,” said Ron Denman, Courtnay Montgomery’s attorney.
Court documents estimate Montgomery’s jewels at $5.5 million but attorneys in the case say that figure could be closer to $8 million and there appear to be some pieces missing.
The courts determined the widow of famed tobacco litigator and philanthropist Robert Montgomery is unable to care for herself because of dementia and appointed co-guardians to watch out for her finances and well-being.
Mitch Kitroser, who represents John Cramer, Mary Montgomery’s professional guardian, said such measures are needed when there is intense disagreement about the senior.
“Professional guardians don’t get picked because families get along,” he said. “Professional guardians get picked in these situations where you have people not getting along and it is not in the best interest of the family and for the most part not in the best interest for the incapacitated person.”
A relative who lives in Alaska also was appointed as her guardian. The 87-year-old’s assets — fed by tobacco litigation fee payments — are under the control of her former assistant and a wealth management company. Courtnay Montgomery — as well as a host of elder advocates — might differ on that opinion. They say the guardianship system in Florida aims to separate the senior from their life savings and their property.
Thus the daughter has recently hired Denman, who is no stranger to holding the state’s much-criticized guardianship system for the elderly accountable. He won a landmark $16.4 million federal verdict in August against West Palm Beach attorneys for “unnecessary and excessive fees” in a guardianship of another wealthy person.
For the time being, the jewelry resides in the safe deposit box of another one of Courtnay Montgomery’s lawyers, Brian Gabriel, in Jupiter. He said the court directed him to take possession of the items. A year ago, the guardians had no idea what happened to the Montgomery jewels housed in a safe at Montgomery’s mansion on Billionaires Row in Palm Beach.
They surfaced — according to court documents — when the co-trustees of Mary Montgomery’s estate learned from an insurance carrier that her daughter had “hid all of the missing jewelry in the residence.”
Courtnay Montgomery’s lack of trust with the court-appointed guardians and co-trustees of her mother’s assets is well-documented — and she has the battle scars to prove it.
She was forced to move out from her mother’s mansion, Sin Cuidado (“without care”). The mold-ridden Addison Mizner-designed seaside residence sold last month for $37 million and has been approved for demolition.
Mary Montgomery was moved temporarily to a nursing home after the court-appointed guardians became concerned she was being mistreated by her daughter, according to court documents. A caregiver described in an affidavit a Palm Beach version of Grey Gardens, where the daughter controlled her mother in a run-down mansion, dictating her medicines, when she slept, even her television — only “Law & Order” and “Criminal Minds.”
The daughter then caught grand theft and grand larceny charges, accused of stealing millions of dollars worth of property from her mother, including a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, silverware and a wine collection. She was charged in Minnesota, as well, with siphoning off more than $188,000 from her mother. The case is pending.
Also, still missing are two pieces of art from the mansion: a David Park piece a nd a Picasso ink drawing. Denman said his client has no idea what happened to the artwork.
Richard Rampell, who was Bob Montgomery’s accountant for years, said the couple preferred to collect art from living artists, but that he remembers the Picasso. “It used to be right near his desk,” he said.
All of this drama — there’ve been three trials and three appeals involving numerous attorneys — centers on property Courtnay Montgomery stands to inherit when her mother passes.
“She has a general concern that the trustees look at everything as just having a liquidating value as opposed to what it may mean to a family member,” Denman said.
And jewelry of a loved one is particularly potent, grief therapists say. Loss of a loved one — or in Courtnay Montgomery’s case, lack of daily access to her mother — may cut the soul, but the object can serve as a bandage.
“That is the tangible item you have left,” said West Palm Beach grief therapist Tara Homeier. “You may not have the physical person anymore, so those items are your connection to them.”
No ill intent
All of Courtnay Montgomery’s actions, Denman said, come from her deep desire to preserve her parents’ legacy and to keep these precious possessions from being liquidated by those who now control her mother’s assets.
“One thing I can feel without question from the bottom of my heart is that there was never any plan by Courtnay to scheme or take anything from anywhere for the purpose of liquidating it or to commit some criminal act,” Denman said.
Courtnay Montgomery wouldn’t address the jewelry in a text conversation last month with The Palm Beach Post, but described the guardianship system as “human trafficking of elders.” Florida’s guardianship system has been the subject of reform at the state Legislature and by the courts in Palm Beach County.
Mary Montgomery, though, is thriving despite her struggles with dementia, according to Kitroser, the attorney for the professional guardian.
She no longer resides at the Lourdes Noreen McKeen nursing home and now has an apartment overlooking the ocean with her dog, according to sources. She can still recognize old friends and can carry on a conversation with them.
On Mother’s Day, the guardian spent a good deal of his personal time waiting with Mary Montgomery for her daughter to visit, but she never came, Kitroser said.
Courtnay Montgomery’s attorney said she spoke to her mother by phone and could not make a Mother’s Day visit because of illness.
Mary Montgomery attended three operas this season at the Kravis Center and other social events. Again, the jewels became an issue.
It took a bit of lawyering for her to get some of her jewelry to wear to the opera. Cramer, the guardian, told the court if the daughter objected, he would spend $250,000 to purchase new items because Montgomery “has been accustomed to a life of luxury for many years.”
Eventually, Mary Montgomery got to wear some of her favorite baubles but had to return them to the safe deposit box. Kitroser said he estimated that $1 million worth of the jewelry is still missing.
“We wanted her to have some of the jewelry that she used to wear. We wanted her to enjoy them,” said Kitroser, who represents Cramer.
“Frankly, she is entitled. Mary and Bob were very generous with our county and with our community and she deserves to live as comfortable and as enjoyable as she can.”