Lawyers often see family members get ugly over assets. Rarely, though, does the nastiness literally explode, sending one of the parties to meet his maker. But that's exactly what happened in the case of Dr. Nicholas Bartha and his ex-wife Cordula Hahn. Their War of the Roses divorce became his funeral dirge.
"When you read this message your life will change forever. You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubbish digger," read the text of a rambling email sent at 7: 30 in the morning of July 10 by Nicholas, late of 34 East 62nd Street -- the site of a historic townhouse and one of the most posh addresses on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
The alleged golddigger was Cordula. Former husband and wife had been locked in a five-year divorce battle. The previous Friday, a sheriff's deputy had served eviction papers so the property could be sold to satisfy Cordula's $4 million judgment against Nicholas.
Apparently, Nicholas decided that the house was, well, to die for. About 20 minutes after he sent his email message to various parties -- among them television talk show host Sean Hannity of Fox News and Nicholas' real estate broker (natch) -- a gas explosion leveled the townhouse, sending debris flying, doormen scrambling, and tabloids in a town obsessed with real estate chasing a story tailor-made for bad puns. "Doctor Boom's East Side Blast," read a headline in the New York Post.
Pulled from the rubble, Nicholas, 66, lingered at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital until July 17. His death was declared a suicide. By then, Nicholas' next-door neighbors already had sued him, claiming the explosion damaged their cooperative apartment and forced them to leave it. His estate may see still more lawsuits: Shards of flying glass injured four people walking on the street that morning; 10 firefighters also were hurt.
Nicholas, who had attempted suicide several times in the midst of his divorce proceedings, died without a will. Talk about bad estate planning -- especially if his intent was to disinherit his family. Now, his sole heirs are two estranged daughters, Maria Serena Bartha and Johanna S. Bartha.
Maria filed a petition for letters of administration July 20 with the New York Surrogate's Court and will oversee the legal mess her father left behind. The city has already cleaned up the physical rubbish that Nicholas envisioned his ex-wife digging through. The city's tab for the removal is estimated at $230,000, according to the list of miscellaneous expenses on the petition -- an amount that, according to New York state law, must be paid from the estate's assets before Cordula sees a dime.
If appointed administrator, Maria's first task will be payment of the estate's debts, a matter governed by Section 1811 of the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act. First up: Nicholas' funeral expanses, listed as $5,730 in the petition. Next will come the expenses of administering the estate, in other words, the fees charged by Maria's lawyer. "Which is good for public policy, to make sure estates get administered properly," says Herbert E. Nass of Herbert Nass & Associates in New York. Then come the creditors.
Section 1811 gives a first priority to debts owed to the United States and to the state of New York. The petition describes Nicholas' federal income tax owed as "unknown" and lists the cost of removing the debris from the townhouse at $230,000 "plus sales tax."
The estate's largest creditor is Cordula, who never actually held title to 34 East 62nd Street. When the property was purchased for $390,000 in 1980, title was in the names of Nicholas' parents, and later in the name of Nicholas and his parents. Still later, Nicholas got a 50 percent interest in the property as a gift from his father; another 25 percent interest came to him as an inheritance from his mother. His mother willed the remaining 25 percent to her granddaughters Maria and Johanna.
When Cordula left the townhouse and sought a divorce in 2001, a referee assigned to determine the economic issues concluded that the East 62nd Street property was not a marital asset. An appeals court reversed that decision in January 2005, noting that $45,095 of the $199,699 down payment on the townhouse came from Cordula. "The term marital property must be broadly construed in order to give effect to the economic partnership concept," according to the opinion of Judge David Saxe of the appellate division. Cordula Bartha v. Nicholas Bartha, State of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, Jan. 27, 2005.
Even then, Nicholas vowed to keep fighting, though he failed to show up at several court hearings. As a result, Cordula got a default judgment in the amount of $4.06 million -- an amount that includes about $40,000 in fees from her lawyers. Cordula and her lawyers filed affidavits as part of the petition for letters of administration.
Nicholas' townhouse sat on a block around the corner from Hermes' Madison Avenue store and near the office of billionaire Ron Perelman, chairman of Revlon. Built in 1882 in the Neo-Grecian style, the townhouse was steeped in history: It was once the secret meeting place for a group of New Yorkers who gathered intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. Now that the landmark townhouse has been razed, the property is actually worth much more than the $4 million estimate cited in the divorce proceedings. Vacant lots on the upper east side of Manhatan are, to put it mildly, a developer's dream. Real estate agents peg its value between $7 million and $9 million. (Fodder for yet another New York Post headline: "Property's Value Set to Boom.")
As his sole heirs, the daughters stand to inherit whatever is left after creditors are paid.
"The end result from this Gotterdammerung is just what he didn't want: now the wife and daughters are going to get a lot more than anyone even imagined," says noted divorce lawyer Raoul Felder. (For those who are not opera buffs, "Gotterdammerung" means "Twilight of the Gods" and refers to the last of the four operas in Wagner's Ring cycle.)
But at least one lawyer believes the last act of this soap opera will be a long one: David Jaroslawicz, who represents Nicholas' East 62nd Street neighbors, expects to battle Cordula over whether she "perfected" her judgment; he'll question the priority of her claim. He'll also assert that, as an owner, she was liable for any defects that contributed to the blast.
"This should be a legal mess," he says.
In other words, Cordula might have to dig herself out of rubble, after all.
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Karen Donovan is a freelance writer living in New York City.