Fidelity or fraud? A tale of a changed and contested will

He was a patient at Providence Hospital rehabbing a broken femur. She was a nurse’s aide with a lovely smile.

She wasn’t his aide, per se, but if she walked past his room, he would often flag her down, asking for help: a glass of water, perhaps, or a urinal that needed emptying. Mundane tasks eventually grew into longer conversations and, finally, to phone calls after discharge.

“I’ve always thought of it as a very romantic story,” she mused.

James Haviland was 85 and widowed, a prominent local doctor, long retired from regular practice. Mary Burden was 35, divorced, and trying to balance a career and four kids.

“I had no desire to get involved with a man,” Mary recalled. Still, they began to date.

Right from the start, she said, she told him about her past — the homelessness, the troubled marriage, the prison term — and he didn’t seem to mind. She was a new woman now, a Christian. And Jim, she said, was “a real treasure.”

Do you love her? a longtime assistant asked the doctor. He answered with a laugh.

In 1997, less than a year after they met, Mary walked down the aisle in front of 100 guests, wearing a pale blue dress printed with delicate flowers. Jim stepped along with a cane. She promised to “love, honor and obey,” preferring to treat marriage in a way that was “biblically correct.” And for 10 years, Mary said, that’s what she did, until Jim’s death at age 96.

This is where things get ugly. Jim’s final will pretty much cut out his four children; that left Mary to inherit what appeared to be millions. The ensuing court case encompassed two weeks of trial, hundreds of exhibits, two trips to the Court of Appeals and one to the Washington Supreme Court. The money might have run out, but the fight hasn’t stopped.

“Jim was my husband,” Mary said tearfully. “I loved him dearly and he loved me.

“What they’ve done is just so … it’s just so wrong.”

Very different backgrounds

Before we begin this story, a little bit of background is in order. Dr. Haviland was the sort of man who had buildings named after him. In addition to a successful private medical practice, he was a professor and administrator at the University of Washington. In 1953, when he was acting dean, he played a big role in the construction of the university’s hospital.

But his most significant achievement, perhaps, was co-founding the world’s first outpatient dialysis clinic, now known as Northwest Kidney Centers. Outpatient dialysis improved the lives of thousands of kidney patients.

Personally, Jim was a great conversationalist, a man of many interests whose Mercer Island house was filled with books and records. For more than six decades he attended Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where he sang in the choir through his 90s. He had a strong will, a conservative political bent, and a relatively frugal lifestyle.

Jim’s first wife, Marion, died in 1993 after 50 years of marriage. Together, they had four children, all now in their 60s.

Mary Burden was born in Idaho, but her family moved around, so she grew up feeling isolated, aspiring only to “cook, clean, sew, have babies and be around children,” according to a psychological report. She met her first husband, Steven Burden, when she was 15.

Steven, six years older and an assistant manager at a grocery store, “swept me off my feet,” she recalled. By 16, she was pregnant. They got married and eventually had four children, but struggled to pay the bills. She wound up living in campgrounds, a roach-infested hotel and a “little barn of a house you could hear the wind whistle through,” with neither stove nor refrigerator, she later said.

In the early 1990s, she became a member of the Bible Baptist Church in Poulsbo. Later, she began working as a nurse’s aide and discovered it was fulfilling. Between 1997 and 2003, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing, and she held several jobs in the field, including a position teaching nursing at Seattle University.

Jim helped make that possible. Not long after they met, he agreed to put $100,000 toward her education and create a $300,000-$350,000 “nest egg,” according to court records.

She says their relationship started after he was discharged from the hospital, and he hired her to be his driver. The idea was, she would wait in the car and study while he went to appointments. But he would press her. Why sit outside when he had two tickets to the opera? How about dinner? “It was his way,” she later realized, “of keeping me in his life.”

A month or two into this arrangement, he said he wanted to pursue a romance.

“Jim was a person, when he wanted something, he would go after it and he would get it,” Mary said. She told him about her agreement with her older brother, George Cook: if someone wanted to “court” her, he’d have to get George’s permission. “So the man would know there’s oversight in my life,” she explained.

“He comes to the house, and he has this financial portfolio,” George recalled of their meeting. “He said, I want you to know I have the means to take care of your sister.”

George said he didn’t even look at it. “Don’t you think you’re awfully old to be dating someone my sister’s age,” he recalls asking. It turned out age “wasn’t an issue to either of them,” George said. He gave the couple his blessing.

“None of us could figure it out,” George continued. “And yet you watched them. They held hands and loved each other and doted on each other.”

When asked what attracted her to this much older man, Mary rattles off a list.

“He was a gentleman. He was very romantic. He respected me ....

“For me it was never about money,” she said. For instance, she noted, “he gave me three pieces of jewelry in the whole time we were married: a ruby pendant the first time he kissed me, ruby earrings the first time he told me he loved me, and a ruby wedding ring, our favorite stone.”

She doesn’t say this, but the ring was worth $20,000.

A troubled past

Mary didn’t keep her past secret from Jim and his family, but talking about it today clearly makes her uncomfortable. For years, she was a thief — a very, very good one.

In 1992, she pleaded guilty to 14 counts of possession of stolen property and conspiracy to commit theft. According to court records, Mary would pick out an item at a store — say an expensive KitchenAid mixer — and switch the price tag to a much lower amount. She’d pay for the KitchenAid at the reduced price, then return it for the higher price. She traveled the country for weeks at a time doing this. Sometimes, she and Steven would bring the kids along to sit in the car. Other times, she traveled alone, wiring up to $40,000 a month back home to Kitsap County.

Mary’s work on the road made the family quite comfortable.

“Steven purchased several homes, extensive amounts of clothing … employed men to work on his own home full time, hired a governess … and gave sums of money to friends and members of their church,” court records state.

One day in Illinois, a store guard followed Mary outside. When he put his hands on her, she bit him and “evidently attempted to shoot him with a stun gun from her purse,” court records state. In her station wagon was $5,000 in stolen property and maps showing shopping centers all over the country.

Mary later gave a full confession — albeit mostly blaming Steven, describing their relationship as one of control and isolation, anger and threats. Mary said she stole out of fear.

“He told me how to do it, when, where,” she told a psychologist at the time. “I didn’t have a choice. Who could I tell? All I had was him.

“I couldn’t leave. I was his as much as a car was his. And a car doesn’t leave.”

Psychological tests found this submissiveness was a deeply held personality trait, a “lifelong pattern of looking to a dominant man to create her identity and tell her what to do.” She displayed characteristics of an abused spouse, the report said.

A judge sentenced her to two years in prison. She and Steven, who was also convicted, were ordered to pay $350,000 in restitution. She served more than a year behind bars, qualified for a work-release program, and landed the hospital job where she met Jim. She has satisfied her restitution and the court deemed her rehabilitated.

“In Jim’s eyes and the eyes of the criminal-justice system I was/am a success story,” she wrote in an email.

“Good for each other”

Mary and Jim did the typical married-couple things: She went with him to conferences; he attended her graduations. They went to the symphony and to church. She hosted huge 90th and 95th birthday parties for him at the Seattle Yacht Club.

Friends and family said they seemed happy. “Very much so,” a longtime friend of Jim’s would later testify. “Both were good for each other.”

They traveled to Alaska and China — him in his wheelchair.

“He had a gentle touch. He liked to hold hands,” she said. “We had a physical attraction. We enjoyed the physical nature of a married couple.”

Jim’s money flowed. During their marriage, they gifted hundreds of thousands of dollars to both sets of children. He helped Mary’s kids’ with college. He loaned Mary’s family money to buy homes or to renovate. His own children and grandchildren had mostly moved away, but he was able to enjoy Mary’s large extended family.

“From his perspective, when he married Mary, it was like Little House on the Prairie,” said George, Mary’s brother. “He was adopted into this family that met so many of his needs. He [had been] living alone on Mercer Island. [With Mary,] he had grandkids hanging on his wheelchair.”

George continues: “Maybe there was, in some sense, a marriage of convenience. He got a lot of what he wanted, and Mary got what she needed, (including) security.”

Inevitably, Jim’s health declined.

“His physical health,” Mary notes. In 2005, she quit her hospital job to care of him full time. They had the house renovated for his wheelchair. But still, Jim was able to read his newspapers, help out with the cooking, and enjoy their time together, she said.

In November 2007, he became dehydrated and disoriented so she took him to the emergency room. The chart notes that Jim was confused and agitated. “Advanced dementia,” it said. Mary took Jim home to be comfortable. A week later, he passed away.

“Undue influence”

The time had come to sort through Jim’s estate.

Decades earlier, Jim and his first wife, Marion, had placed considerable sums into several trusts. Upon their deaths, the money was to go to their children and to favorite charities.

But through Jim and Mary’s time together, his estate plan would change. The day before they married, he amended his will to include provisions for her. He made several additional revisions after that.

With each change, Mary’s share grew larger. Under Jim’s final will, signed in January 2006, his planned charitable bequests had been halved. And his kids didn’t get anything in the will, other than a “right of first refusal” to buy property he owned on Shaw Island, if Mary decided to sell it.

Three of his children challenged the will in court, alleging that it was the product of Mary’s “undue influence” and that their father lacked “testamentary capacity.” The central question became, was his mind sound through all these changes?

At trial, several people testified about Jim’s decline. At his 95th birthday party, in 2006, some guests recalled him staring blankly, as if he didn’t know who they were. Even before that, he sometimes appeared to be in a stupor. There were times when he didn’t even realize he was sitting in a wet diaper. At some point, he couldn’t recall how to brush his teeth.

Other witnesses saw Jim mentally alert up through 2007. The lawyer who drew up the final will testified he didn’t notice anything amiss when Jim signed it — though the only thing Jim said during the five- to 10-minute meeting was “yes.”

The children produced emails Mary had sent to keep them apprised of their father’s condition. In one, she said he often didn’t recognize her. A doctor who reviewed the records concluded Jim had been suffering from dementia.

Ask Mary about all this and she seems puzzled. She said she provided Jim years of good nursing care, yet now it was being transformed into evidence against her.

Sure, there were times when he was temporarily out of it — that often happens to the elderly when they get infections. She maintains his mental function returned as soon as the infection cleared.

“If I didn’t love Jim, or if I was just after his money, it would have made a lot more sense to put him in a nursing home rather than take care of him.”

All those changes to the estate? They were orchestrated by Jim, she maintains, not her.

“In my world, the men wear the pants and make the decisions,” she said. “We followed Biblical precepts. It’s just how I think it should be.”

She wondered: “Is that bad?”

Full circle

The battle over Jim’s estate is now approaching six years, with lawyer fees in the hundreds of thousands.

The courts have sided with Jim’s children. They declined to speak to a reporter.

Their lawyers spoke at length, but later insisted the conversations were off the record.

Mary had engaged in a “systematic, persistent, and unexplained pattern of transferring assets from (Jim’s) estate” when it was clear his faculties were declining, one ruling said. There was “little evidence” where the money was ultimately spent. What was clear was that “substantial sums” went to Mary and her interests (including $345,000 to her church, and $843,000 to family and friends) without comparable gifts to his.

While there wasn’t conclusive evidence Jim had dementia when he signed the will, it was clear Mary had exerted “undue influence” over him.

A judge homed in on a letter prepared by Mary under Jim’s signature, two days after she took him to the emergency room, disoriented. Jim’s “parting wish,” it said, was to withdraw money from one of the trusts to pay off $700,000 in debt, including the mortgage on the house where Mary now lives.

The letter did not sit well with the court. The trust had been set up years ago by Jim and Marion to be their children’s inheritance. Mary’s claim the deathbed letter was Jim’s last wish, the court wrote, “strains credulity.”

After years of litigation, Mary has been disinherited. But it may all be moot anyway. Mary said the money is gone — gone to lawyers, gone to pay off debt … just gone. By Mary’s initial accounting, the estate was $45,000 in the negative. The children don’t believe she could have spent Jim’s millions, that she must have money socked away. It would be up to the estate’s personal representative to track assets down, should it come to that.

As the legal battle dragged on, Mary said she’s been struggling. The court case cost her the teaching job at Seattle U, she said. Now, she makes her living providing in-home care.

Not all that different from life before she met Jim.

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.


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