I am writing this article to share my personal experiences and to disclose to all current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses that the potential for the Watchtower organization to take advantage of their elderly parents clearly exists. I am specifically referring to the handling of family inheritances, last wills and testaments, estates, family trusts, and the disposition of property and cash assets.
I’ll describe my family’s present situation to demonstrate exactly what I mean:
Our 82-year-old father lived alone after my mother passed away. He has always been proud of his being independent and self-sufficient. That is until a so-called “Pioneer” set foot into his home. This “Pioneer minister” attended the Pioneer School at Bethel, and for a while he actually did some Pioneer service in other countries. After Mother died, our father was cared for primarily by this Pioneer (a representative of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society). That Pioneer’s only responsibility was to look after and care for my father’s personal needs in exchange for room and board and meals.
Although we were not notified of his condition, shortly afterwards our father started to show early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. As is often typical in cases involving this particular diagnosis, his overall health began to degrade. In spite of the fact that this so-called “Pioneer” and his fellow elders in my father’s congregation knew how to contact us, they made sure that we were deliberately kept in the dark about my father’s true condition.
Even though we had a need to know, those elders and the Pioneer made a conscious decision to not keep us informed – in spite of my father’s advanced age and physical condition. They knew he was already frail, and his mental condition was diminishing with the onset of Alzheimer’s.
In fact, they tried to influence him to believe that we did not care about his well-being. The Pioneer made statements to our father on a regular basis that implied that we did not care for him as he did because we “resided in another state.” This even extended to the congregation’s elders because they would not allow our father to talk to me or have any other type of contact with us. They told him that if he continued to have contact with me (or vice versa) he “was not going to make it into Paradise to be with my deceased mother again.”
My sister, who was also shunned by the elders, was able to maintain an open dialogue with our father by telephone calls on a weekly basis. There were times when the Pioneer simply refused to pass our calls to our father. We found that rather strange behavior and wondered if he was hiding the possibility that something might be wrong.
All of these factors resulted in our father being totally isolated from his own children. Limiting our access allowed them to take advantage of an elderly person unable to make many of his own decisions. Because of his declining health, my father was susceptible to their influences and their ability to control his thoughts and decisions. They also used their appearance of having “religious authority” to create undue influence over him.
It is a fact: a rapidly growing segment of the population are older persons with severe medical and psychiatric problems that affect their mental and cognitive abilities. Elderly persons like our father, who has been a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for over 45 years, are even more vulnerable because they have been exposed to brainwashing techniques used by both the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and the elders at the local Kingdom Hall.
We discovered that they managed to deceive our father into relinquishing his house (which he had totally paid off) and all of his other assets. While we were reviewing his savings account, we discovered that his bank account had been transferred to a new account bearing the name of the Pioneer. My father’s stock certificates had also been cashed out.
Somehow the Pioneer convinced our father to sign a new “Power of Attorney.” The Pioneer also coerced Dad into buying him a new automobile, using my father’s perfectly good car as a trade-in plus another $17,000 in cash for the purchase. This was in spite of the fact that our father was not permitted to drive; it was clearly unsafe for a man of his age and condition to drive.
We also discovered a number of IOUs belonging to the elders of the local Kingdom Hall. Money owed to our father and one of the IOUs were used for the construction of a new Kingdom Hall.
The Elders were aware of the Pioneer’s actions and their own involvement while they unscrupulously took advantage of our father’s finances.
Shocked and disgusted, we discovered that within the past six months all of our father’s assets had been depleted. The so-called “Pioneer” made himself the sole beneficiary of my father’s newly revised will. We were never informed about the execution of our father’s new Last Will and Testament and no disclosure of its existence was ever made to us. In fact, we later discovered that all pertinent original legal documents were taken by that “Pioneer” and he has refused to return them to us.
It would have been obvious to anyone that our father was not sound of mind and body. We know that he would have never relinquished ALL of his assets to unrelated persons the way they claimed he did, especially to anyone unknown to him – if he had not been coerced by the elders and Pioneer. They took advantage of him and were clearly legally negligent in regards to dealing with his declining health.
Our poor father and mother (now deceased) lost their entire life savings to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nothing remains. We cannot even afford to pay his medical bills. All of this hardship brought on our family is due to the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses being encouraged to take advantage of elderly members who have substantial financial resources.
The fact is that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a history of using their religious position to unduly influence their elderly members.
We consulted with two attorneys who will pursue this case of possible criminal exploitation and fraud. We are waiting for a report from the Police Department of Palm Bay, Florida and the State Attorney who specializes on the protection, well-being, and rights of the elderly. My sister and I have decided that we will carry on legal action against those involved as long as necessary. We will assure you that the Jehovah’s Witnesses involved will not get away with this. Nothing they did should stand up in court – everything they did appears to have been fraudulent and deliberate.
I want to emphasize that my sole purpose in submitting this article is not just to disclose my own family’s experiences. I also want to inform current or former Jehovah’s Witnesses who may have gone through similar situations involving their elderly parents, that there is hope – that justice can be achieved by going through the courts.
We’d also invite you to share your experiences. We know that we are not alone – certain that there must be many other cases similar to ours. If those of us who have been victims of the Watchtower’s exploitation of the elderly unite together – and take legal action against them – we can expose the vile practices of the abusive cult known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Editor’s Note: While I have been assured that the story published above is true, and that this case has, in fact, been submitted to the proper authorities for investigation and potential prosecution, I am not privy to the details or documents connected to this particular lawsuit. Nor do I have any information that would indicate to me the probability that Mr. Polgar, his family, or any other alleged victims might be successful in a lawsuit against the Watchtower or its agents for alleged wrongdoing in this situation.
On the other hand, I will assure my readers that this is not the first complaint I’ve heard about the Watchtower’s attempts to redirect the assets of elderly and infirm members to Society’s coffers to the detriment of biological heirs.
If this has happened to you, or to someone you know, then as Mr. Polgar suggests please share your story with us. If possible, please provide jurisdictions, case numbers, and legal firms involved – and let us know what the final outcome might have been.
Mr. Polgar’s case is not unique. Apparently these kinds of cases are somewhat common in the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK. Most are eventually negotiated out of court with non-disclosure agreements being part of the final settlements. One case in particular was heard in a Canadian court and the documents were released to the public via JWLeaks. Here is a more complete description of the case as reported HERE:
Sawdon Estate  ONSC 4042
(Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Richetti J, 23 July 2012)
In this Canadian case, the question arose of the validity of dispositions in a will. The residuary beneficiary under the will of Arthur Sawdon (the deceased) was The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada (Watch Tower), a charity and the corporate entity which acts as the legal arm of the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada. However, the Watch Tower attempted to obtain further amounts from the estate.
The deceased had formed a company in the Cayman Islands for tax reasons. He held a 75% interest in the company and his five children the remaining 25% interest. The assets in the company were administered by a trust company, CIBC. The case turned on the fate of seven joint bank accounts, totalling $1,075,872.83. These accounts had been held jointly by the deceased and two of his sons.
The deceased’s lawyer was Mr Pole, who set up the company in the Cayman Islands for the deceased, and prepared his will documents. Two wills were prepared, one in 2004 and one in 2006. The 2004 will provided that the estate was to be divided into five parts, one part for each of his children or their issue. If one of the deceased’s children died without issue, that particular child’s share was to go to the Watch Tower. The 2006 will was prepared on 5 July 2006 along with a purported Transfer and Assignment to the Watch Tower of the deceased’s 75% share in the Cayman Islands company. The will left substantially more of the deceased’s assets to the Watch Tower by not acknowledging the fact that joint bank accounts existed. Joint bank accounts would not have formed part of the deceased’s estate (as would be the case in Australia).
Although by this stage Pole had been the family’s lawyer for more than 12 years, he had not disclosed to the deceased that he was an Elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that he had acted as counsel for the Watch Tower in the past. After the signing of the Transfer and Assignment document, Pole travelled to the Cayman Islands with the document to effect the transfer of the assets to the Watch Tower, but the trustee, CIBC, refused to recognise or act upon the document. Pole informed the deceased that, notwithstanding this refusal, the residue of the estate would include his share of the Cayman Islands company.
Some weeks after the 2006 will was executed, the deceased transferred more of his assets (about a further 60% in total) from the Cayman Islands company into joint accounts with his sons. His Honour had already pointed to the plethora of evidence that indicated that the deceased clearly intended to excise the joint accounts from his estate, and said that this late change further illustrated that the deceased did not want the assets transferred to be included in his estate.
The deceased died on 27 March 2007. After his death, Pole wrote to the executor (the eldest of the deceased’s sons) to the effect that the Watch Tower was now the majority holder of the Cayman Islands company shares, on the basis that the 75% share had been transferred to the Watch Tower inter vivos (while the deceased was still alive). This was based on the Transfer and Assignment document which had been refused by the Cayman Islands company’s trustee. He also wrote to the trustee threatening legal action if the transfer was not accomplished immediately. His Honour took a predictably dim view of Pole’s actions. As a lawyer, he should have disclosed the very clear conflict of interest which existed in his dealings with the deceased. His Honour found that his actions were biased towards the interests of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. His Honour said on this point (at ):
I find it surprising and questionable that Mr. Pole would not disclose a conflict or even a potential conflict that he was an “elder” or “lay minister” with the Jehovah’s Witness church and had acted for the Jehovah’s Witness church prior to the preparation of the 2004 Will or the July 2006 Will or the Transfer and Assignment. Mr. Pole’s reason for not doing so – because he wasn’t wearing his Jehovah’s Witness “hat” at the time – is simply not a good answer. Arthur Sawdon and the other shareholders of Sawdon Holdings were entitled to know all of Mr. Pole’s “hats” when Mr. Pole provided advice or prepared documents for Arthur Sawdon…. upon Arthur Sawdon’s death, Mr. Pole’s actions in his attempts and threatens [sic] to get an immediate transfer of the shares of Sawdon Holdings to the Watch Tower, not as a residual beneficiary but as an inter vivos gift, gives the appearance of bias in favour of the Watch Tower. Mr. Pole’s explanation that he did this to avoid estate fees was not a credible explanation….
His Honour went on to find that the deceased had the clear intention of creating joint bank accounts with his sons, and that he did not intend to make any inter vivos gift to the Watch Tower. Nor did the deceased make any gift of the interest on the accounts (as opposed to the accounts themselves) to the Watch Tower. As the ‘gift’ of the joint accounts to his sons was not a testamentary disposition, they were not included in the assets of the estate.
Therefore, the Watch Tower failed in its bid to obtain the benefit of the joint accounts. They were entitled to the residuary of the estate under the will, but as most of the assets had been transferred to joint accounts, very little remained to be distributed.
Implications of this case
This case has been in the courts since 2010, when there was an initial attempt by one of the sons of the deceased to have the 2006 will declared invalid on the grounds of the medical condition of the deceased when he made the will. That application was denied as the evidence pointed to the deceased’s good health at the time. In the same application, the Watch Tower attempted to stop distributions from the estate, and payment of various fees. This was in order to preserve the amount to which they might have been entitled. This decision disposed of any attempt by the charity to have other than the residuary from the will, which had been the deceased’s intention from the beginning.
The case also highlights the conflict of interest which will arise when someone associated with a charity to benefit under a will is also acting as the testator’s solicitor, or in another professional capacity, in the matter of the will or property distribution. The solicitor in this case should have disclosed his connection to the charity and ceased acting for the testator unless there was fully informed consent.
Actual Court Documents for this case are available at: