Fabulous wealth and halfway houses. An unexpected death, alleged conflicts of interest and a battle over $82 million. This is the story...

Fabulous wealth and halfway houses.

An unexpected death, alleged conflicts of interest and a battle over $82 million.

This is the story of James Widener Ray, a story that was sealed up in a King County Superior Court guardianship file for nearly two decades. The file was unsealed after Ray’s family challenged the guardian’s role in Ray’s will.

At the center of the controversy was Washington’s biggest guardianship company, Guardianship Services of Seattle (GSS), and its financial director, Ed Gardner.

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The story begins in the 1980s when Ray, mentally ill and addicted to drugs, was living in a halfway house despite his wealth. His family asked for the appointment of a guardian, a role that GSS personnel took on in 1987.

Under the company’s care, Ray’s life improved dramatically. He bought a house on Capitol Hill, traveled and gave generously to friends and arts organizations in Seattle and elsewhere, including $1 million to the Experience Music Project. Unfortunately, his bipolar disorder would never be fully under control.

Then in October 2005, Ray died unexpectedly at age 52.

When family members learned the details of his will, they were dismayed. Under an old will, Ray had left everything to relatives, heirs of the Widener family of Philadelphia, which made a fortune in the meat and railroad industries.

He signed a new will in 1998, a four-paragraph document also signed by his psychiatrist, saying Ray was of sound mind. Under the new will, Ray bequeathed his entire estate to the Raynier Institute and Foundation, a Seattle charity that GSS had helped him create years before.

Ray’s sister, Joan Ray, said she didn’t have a problem giving the money to charity; she was just concerned about the guardian’s role in the foundation.

Gardner was the longtime president of the foundation’s board. And under the foundation’s bylaws, he could serve for life. In addition to his role as Ray’s guardian, Gardner became personal representative and executor of Ray’s estate.

“There were too many hats worn by one person,” Joan Ray said recently. She wasn’t accusing Gardner of wrongdoing, but she challenged the will, arguing in court papers that her brother hadn’t understood that Gardner and the two other board members could run “the foundation in perpetuity with no independent controls on them.”

Guardians are not prohibited from being executors of estates, or from running their ward’s foundations.

After Ray’s family contested the will, the state Attorney General’s Office intervened in the case, concerned that the board members weren’t equipped to run a charity of that size.

Gardner said in a recent interview that his company had had no influence over Ray’s will — GSS has a policy prohibiting employees from even discussing wills with its wards. And he didn’t know all the details of the will until after Ray’s death. Also, Ray’s longtime lawyer made sure Ray wasn’t going into the new will blindly, Gardner said.

He said he wasn’t surprised that Ray wanted GSS involved with his legacy. The company had helped Ray for 18 years, and he was closer to some of his caregivers than to family, Gardner said. Ray chose to put his money in the hands of people he had grown to trust, people who knew where he’d want his money to go, Gardner said.

Gardner said if he were in Joan Ray’s shoes, he would have asked questions, too, about his many roles. But he wanted to honor James Ray’s wishes.

“Unless you’re going to say Jim isn’t allowed to pick who he trusts, what else could have been done?” asked Tom O’Brien, GSS executive director.

Earlier this year, Joan Ray and the foundation reached an agreement that created up to three new seats on its board, including one for Joan. Two financial experts also joined the board. Now she will have a role in carrying out her brother’s wishes.