What happens when the people trusted the most—family—become the enemy?
The former father-and-son financial advisory team of Dwight and Chris Wanken provides a cautionary tale of family practices gone horribly wrong, brimming with the younger Wanken’s wild accusations of fraud and claims his father stalked him, threatened him with physical violence, hacked his bank accounts and even caused the death of his mother in 2007. The drama has played out in courts across the country, including an appeal pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The elder Wanken denies all accusations, and despite the avalanche of legal actions, no court has yet handed a significant victory to his son. “I’ve been practicing for 40 years and in all the cases and arbitrations I’ve handled, I’ve not once seen a case that proliferated into so many lawsuits and appeals,” says Dwight Wanken’s attorney Henry Simpson of Busch Ruotolo & Simpson.
The opening salvo rang out in 2008 when Dwight, the managing principal of Beacon Financial Advisors, fired Chris from their Dallas-based Raymond James independent firm in 2008, claiming inferior work.
The younger Wanken sued his father and Raymond James, claiming that he was not an employee but an equal partner in the practice. While there was a catastrophic succession plan in place--which set Chris up as his father’s successor if Dwight suffered an unexpected medical emergency--Dwight argued there was no formal partnership agreement.
A FINRA arbitration panel sided with Dwight in 2009, but ordered him to remove language in Chris’ U5 citing job performance as a factor in the dismissal to ‘no fault, non-investment related, irreconcilable differences with branch office.” In most cases, that ruling would have been the end of litigation, but Chris refused to give up. “Right is right—that’s why I’m fighting,” Chris says.
Representing himself, Chris has filed claims in Texas state court, federal court, Texas Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court; He claims his father lied during the initial arbitration hearing and later gave a contradictory testimony to the Texas Workforce Commission. He also claims his father failed to pay him overtime under the Equal Pay act and neglected to make mandatory contributions to his retirement plan. His father disputes the allegations, and several courts have refused to overturn previous rulings in Dwight’s favor.
Recently, Chris’ crusade against his father has intensified. The younger Wanken filed a wrongful death suit against Dwight in March, claiming he neglected to get Dwight's wife, Vicki, who was ill, proper medical care in the days leading up to her death in 2007. In court documents, he claims that he recently recollected both conversations with his mother and seeing some suspicious emails that now lead him to believe that his father, by “commission or omission of care, intended Vicki to die.”
Dwight Wanken denies all accusations. Previous court documents have pointed to the “untimely passing” of the family matriarch as being a major factor that created “sustained emotional turmoil” in the family.
Still, the younger Wanken claims he is the persecuted one. “My family and I have lived a nightmare for the last six years because of Dwight Wanken and his wife, Kayla Kennedy,” Chris Wanken said in a June press release. He alleges his father has stalked and harassed his family, filed a “groundless” custody suit to gain guardianship of his children (dismissed in 2009), threatened to kill or harm him unless he dropped a suit and, most recently, hacked bank, email and blog accounts of he and his wife. Dwight has denied all the allegations.
The cases have not only taken a toll on each side emotionally, but financially as well. “Five years of litigation at both the state and federal level, as well as at two courts of appeals and the before both the Texas Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court…will add up,” Simpson says. Dwight Wanken’s legal fees now stand at “a very substantial six-digit figure, i.e. well in excess of the average household wealth in America,” he added, despite discounts that his lawyers have extended over the years.
Chris Wanken says he has also endured financial hardships. Following the 2009 ruling, Chris was unable to find a job in the financial services industry and eventually lost his family’s house. He now works to support his wife, 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son as a car salesman in Austin.
Despite their differences, both father and son agree they should’ve had an executed, legally binding, jointly witnessed partnership document in place, “with every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed,” Chris says. Just because it’s family does not mean teams can neglect the basics, he added.
“If you’re going to bring family members into the business, it’s a good idea to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Dwight Wanken says. “They have to be treated like every other employee.”