(WXYZ) - When you lose a loved one, often the last thing on your mind is what to do with the home they once lived in. But several local families say before they could do anything with their relatives’ estates, some realtors and attorneys are swooping in to cash in.
“It’s really shady,” said Kristin Bobier Rekowski. Rekowski tells the 7 Investigators that her late father would be furious if he knew what had happened with his home.
When Richard Bobier died last year, Kristin says she had been told his Warren house was worth far less than what he owed on it.
“I was just working on getting his belongings out of the house and just trying to salvage what could be salvaged,” said Rekowski.
After the foreclosure process started, Rekowski and her siblings talked about trying to redeem the house and put it up for sale. But before they could do that, somebody else stepped in.
“We were summoned to the court. Someone opened a probate case in his name,” said Rekowski.
That someone is attorney Cecil St. Pierre. St. Pierre is also the Warren City Council President, and he’s a state-appointed Public Administrator who’s authorized to open estates, like Richard Bobier’s, in Probate Court.
An estate is everything you own, such as your house, and your bank account, which are known as your assets.
An estate is also everything you owe, including things like your mortgage, or credit card debts.
And when someone dies, even if you have a will, in Michigan the probate courts are in charge of making sure your heirs get what they’re due from your estate.
But if the heirs don’t take certain steps when a loved one dies – after 42 days a Public Administrator attorney can put themselves in charge of the estate.
And that’s what several lawyers and heirs say Cecil St. Pierre has been doing in Macomb County at a rate they’ve never seen before. And he’s not doing it alone. A company called Probate Asset Recovery, or PAR, is often paying the $150 filing fee so St. Pierre can open the estates – a practice other Public Administrators and lawyers call unusual.
When Rekowski received notice from the court announcing that St. Pierre was becoming the Personal Representative of her dad’s estate, she says she had no idea what to do – so she did not fight St. Pierre taking over the estate. She says that meant St. Pierre could dictate which realtor would sell the home. Rekowski says she told him Ralph Roberts Realty would be handling the sale.
Roberts is a Macomb County realtor who literally wrote the book on flipping houses in foreclosure, “Flipping Houses for Dummies.” Roberts sold the Bobier house for a $31,729.52 profit.
Now court records show, one of Roberts’ companies is set to get $3,390 from the estate. But here’s what Kristin wasn’t told about until recently: another company, Probate Asset Recovery, is getting the biggest cut of $10,576.53.
So who owns PAR? That’s exactly what the judge wanted to know at Kristin’s last hearing.
“Is there an owner,” asked Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Kathryn George.
“Yes. Ralph Roberts is the owner,” answered PAR Manger Steve Mogdis during that hearing.
That means, between Robert’s other company and PAR, nearly $14,000 will ultimately end up in Ralph Robert’s pocket. Kristin Rekowski and her brothers (after she’s reimbursed for funeral expenses she already paid) will only net $3158.71 each.
“It’s really not fair,” said Rekowski.
Moments after Rekowski’s court hearing last week, I asked Cecil St. Pierre why he’s using a private company’s money to open so many estates.
“I deal with Probate Asset Recovery because they work with Ralph Roberts Realty in order to sell the house on the multi-list and get the top dollar for the asset. We don’t deal with any investors, or do anything other than what’s on the multi-list,” said St. Pierre.
“Well of course they work with Ralph Roberts Realty – they’re owned by the same person,” said 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
“I don’t know – I don’t know who owns PAR,” said St. Pierre.
But the PAR manager had just admitted that Roberts is the owner in court, with St. Pierre present.
In fact, St. Pierre and Ralph Roberts go way back – all the way to middle school – and they even once owned property together.
“I’m very fortunate to have Cecil as one of my best friends,” said Ralph Roberts.
“Is he your attorney,” asked Catallo.
“He’s represented us in the past,” said Roberts.
Roberts says he’s helping people in southeast Michigan, by finding assets they didn’t know about. He says he’s brought $4.5 million dollars into probate estates since 2013.
“You get 1/3 correct,” asked Catallo.
“25[%] to a third, depending on what the case is,” said Roberts. “I used to buy these houses and I would get 100% of the profit. And I don’t need to make money anymore, I want to do good for the community.”
“It needs to be stopped,” said attorney Gary Allen. Allen says Robert’s company paid for Cecil St. Pierre to petition to open an estate without contacting his clients (the heirs) first, even though his clients don’t want to sell their late mother’s condo.
Allen says one of the heirs had already been named personal representative in the will.
“I called the public admin almost every day from July 27th through August the 3rd, sometimes twice a day. And he never returned my calls,” said Allen “Not once. Never spoke with him. And so then I was forced to go to court, and my client who lives in Brooklyn, she came in from Brooklyn so that she could appear at the hearing. When we got to the hearing, the Public Admin did not show up for an hour.”
Allen says all that extra time and expense was unnecessary for his client. He said St. Pierre did let his client take over the estate, but then he sent them a bill for $892 to come from the estate, including $187 in filing fees – even though Ralph Roberts company had already paid those costs.
“I think it’s a huge problem,” said Allen.
St. Pierre is also asking the court to grant him $4196.25 in fiduciary and attorney fees on the Bobier estate.
“We follow the law to the T. Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. There’s nothing being done wrong,” said Roberts.
“I haven’t said it was illegal – I asked you if it was the right thing to do,” asked Catallo.
“It’s absolutely the right thing. I’m doing great things for thousands of people. I’m getting them money. I’m going to take this across the country. And I’m going to make probate great again,” said Roberts.
Since the 7 Action News started investigating this back in August, the State Attorney General has stepped in to issue new guidelines for Public Administrators.
“The allegations and associated case will be reviewed in a thorough and exacting fashion,” said spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.
Both Roberts and St. Pierre insist they’re helping these estates, by turning around the properties to make money for the estate. Roberts also says by selling empty homes, he’s getting the properties back on the tax rolls and fighting blight.
St. Pierre says if an heir wants to take over the estate they can. But estate lawyers tell 7 Action News if the estate is opened formally like this without an heir realizing it, heirs could end up with a bunch of legal fees.