NEWPORT — In 2016 Henri Blain owned property in three states, was the founder of a successful string of Massachusetts beauty schools that he’d sold to an expanding salon empire, and held an estate valued at roughly $40 million.
The then 78-year-old bachelor also had dementia. It left him that year incapable of caring for himself or his fortune.
The consequence has been four years of legal wrangling in Probate Court between Blain’s court-appointed guardians and future heirs, contested probate orders appealed to Superior Court, quarrels over guardian and lawyer fees — and a judge questioning the validity of an unannounced marriage in 2018 between Blain and a longtime friend.
The probate judge, Gregory F. Fater, labeled the marriage between Blain and Sharon Pratt-Blain invalid “on account of the disability and incapacity of the ward.”
Blain “is incapable of making those decisions, relationship decisions,” Fater said during a 2019 hearing, according to court transcripts. The marriage “was a secret to me,” Fater went on. “I don’t like secrets.”
Echoes of Britney Spears
While the substantial size of Blain’s estate — and the abundance of litigation it has spawned — is unusual, the complex issues it has raised aren’t much different from other guardianship cases, say two law experts in the field.
Harvard Law School professor Robert H. Sitkoff, who specializes in trusts and estates, says cases like Blain’s, where cognitive impairment is at the heart of the debate, can continue on for years — until the individual under guardianship recovers to run their own affairs, or dies.
Sitkoff refers to the familiar case of pop star Britney Spears, whose father was appointed a “conservator,” or guardian, of her well-being and her finances 13 years ago. Spears’ attempt to have that guardianship lifted was the focus of a recent New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.”
Nina Kohn is a professor at Syracuse University who focuses on elder law and helped draft recent updates to the federal act that governs uniform regulations for guardianships.
Kohn says there’s often “quite a lot of dispute” over the fees guardians charge for their professional services and the money they spend to keep those under their watch comfortable and happy.
“A family is often quite unhappy to see funds spent that they would prefer to inherit,” she says. On the other hand, “there are also problems with guardians or conservators charging unreasonable fees.”
More:Richmond probate judge asks whether lawyers are taking too much from woman’s estate
No consensus on marriage under guardianship
And when it comes to the legality of a person under a guardianship marrying, “Courts are all over the place,” says Kohn.
“Some states follow the [federal] uniform act and take the position that an individual subject to guardianship retains the right to marry unless the court has explicitly removed that right.”
Most states “don’t require a [mental] capacity requirement to marry,” she says. But “It’s not surprising to see issues of marriage tied up in courts because not every state has clear laws on that.”
After Judge Fater declared her marriage to Blain invalid, in 2018, Sharon Pratt-Blain argued that Fater lacked authority to nullify a marriage performed in Florida, where the couple, both now in their 80s, reside.
The issue is now center stage in Florida, where a court action contesting the marriage remains pending in Broward County Probate Court.
Blain’s Rhode Island probate case was supposed to transfer to Florida as part of a settlement agreement reached more than a year ago among the five heirs: Blain’s two living siblings and the three grown children of his deceased sister.
But at least one portion of the case “has become the proverbial cash cow (with no end in sight!),” wrote David J. Strachman, in a November court filing, a lawyer representing Blain’s nephew, who is an heir.
Strachman was objecting to a $110,100 bill submitted by a co-guardian, who is Blain’s niece. The bill was for estate planning and guardianship services provided or arranged for last year. Strachman pointed out the niece lives in Wakefield, while Blain lives 1,400 miles away.
Blain fortune’s beautiful beginning
Henri Blain began his cosmetology schools in the 1970s, teaching students from Boston to Connecticut the professional approaches to stylish haircuts, beautiful nails and proper skincare.
In 1999, in the midst of a strong economy, Blain told the Associated Press in an interview that because of the low unemployment rate, salon owners were desperate for more graduates from his six beauty schools.
“It’s a crisis situation,” Blain said. “Salon owners give me hell. What can I do? It’s a tight labor market.”
In 2004, the Regis Corp., a national company of beauty salons looking to build a division of cosmetology schools, acquired Blain’s half dozen beauty schools. (They were formally called “Blaine Beauty Career Schools,” with a different spelling of Blain’s last name.)
The companies did not disclose details of the transaction but said Blain’s schools were profitable, with $13 million in annualized revenue, the Boston Business Journal reported at the time.
Regis’ salon brands included Supercuts and Vidal Sassoon. It now has ownership interest in the national chain of Empire Beauty Schools.
From companion to guardian
Blain had achieved regional acclaim and financial success. But with age his cognitive abilities were slipping, according to hundreds of pages of court records reviewed by The Journal.
In 2016, Blain, who owned an apartment on Newport Harbor at Brown & Howard Wharf, ended up in Newport Hospital. Doctors said he was unable to make his own health-care decisions and needed a guardian.
Sharon Pratt, his companion for decades, filed a court petition to serve in that role. On the afternoon of Dec. 12, 2016, a Middletown lawyer went to visit Blain at his Newport apartment to evaluate him prior to a probate court hearing in a few days on Pratt’s petition.
“Henri could not give me his address in Newport, nor the city where he lived in Florida,” the lawyer, Cristina Offenberg, said in her report to the court. “I don’t believe he knew that he was currently in Newport in the apartment that we were meeting in. He could not really give any specifics about his career but he was explaining to me how to cut hair to make a face look pretty. … When I inquired as to what type of establishments he ran he could not recall.”
When Offenberg discussed a guardian for him, Blain said Sharon Pratt would be a good choice: “He said Sharon and he had been together for over 50 years … and that they each take care of each other when needed.”
Pratt told Offenberg she had a summer home in Marlboro, Massachusetts, and if it sold she would live with Blain at the Newport apartment. She said she also owned a house close to Blain’s home, in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida, and that the two were planning to return there the following week. Pratt had arranged for around-the-clock care for Blain.
In her report back to the court, Offenberg referenced a separate medical evaluation that found Blain had severe memory, attention and judgment impairment. She recommended that Pratt serve as Blain’s guardian overseeing his financial, residential and health decisions.
On Dec. 16, 2016, the probate court appointed Pratt guardian of Blain’s “person” as well as his estate. Six months later, at Pratt’s suggestion, the court appointed Blain’s niece Carla Crowshaw to be a co-guardian. Crowshaw already handled Blain’s bills and some household matters, according to court records.
But family relations “became adversarial,” says one court memorandum, when Crowshaw and Pratt attempted to “make themselves beneficiaries” to Blain’s Fidelity assets.
Crowshaw’s lawyer, Jeffrey K. Techentin, and Pratt’s lawyer, Bernard A. Jackvony, did not return phone calls placed at their law offices for this story.
‘What is going on here?’
In March 2018, with guardian Crowshaw helping with arrangements, records say, Sharon Pratt and Henri Blain were wed in Florida by a justice of the peace.
The marriage came as a surprise to family members and Probate Court Judge Fater, who says in court papers that he did not learn of the nuptials until months later, when a lawyer for Pratt introduced paperwork in which her name was now hyphenated: Pratt-Blain.
“When the court read that filing, that’s when I said in the beginning of that hearing, ‘What is going on here?’” Fater recalled during a 2019 hearing. “There was a change in status of my ward. My ward, who I’m concerned about, in his best interest.”
One heir’s lawyer, objecting to the marriage, noted in documents that “if Sharon Pratt survived the ward, she would receive all of the estate thereby disinheriting interstate heirs at law under Florida law.”
In response to the marriage, Fater removed Pratt-Blain and Crowshaw as guardians. He appointed a new guardian, Brian Bardorf, a Newport attorney, to oversee both Blain’s health and his financial interests. Fater later reappointed Crowshaw as co-guardian of the estate only.
A function of any estate guardian is to ensure that bills get paid and investment strategies employed to lighten tax burdens and preserve assets.
Blain never executed an estate plan or a will describing how he would like to see his assets used and dispersed if he were ever unable to make those decisions himself. That void has left parties in the case struggling to understand his intentions.
The unresolved issue of Blain’s marriage remains a conundrum.
In a previous probate court hearing, Bardorf explained how he had spoken to many people who knew Blain, and that it was clear family was very important to him, but Blain also wanted Sharon Pratt cared for.
Nevertheless, lawyers for the heirs objected in court papers when Bardorf proposed an estate plan that treated Pratt-Blain as the wife of Henri Blain — with all the financial advantages that go with that status.
Bardorf then proposed a plan with “contingencies” depending on how a court eventually rules on the validity of the marriage.
Blain “always wanted to take care of her,” Bardorf said during one probate court hearing. “So whether he takes care of her as a friend and a longtime acquaintance, or whether he takes care of her as a spouse is a decision that is going to be made elsewhere. The plan I submitted says if there is a marriage it goes this way, and you take advantage of the marital status. If there’s not a marriage, you make the gift and it’s done.”
No resolution in sight
Last week the case was once again before Judge Fater in Newport Probate Court.
Five lawyers, Blain’s two guardians, and Blain’s brother, Marcel, an heir, appeared remotely via Zoom.
Bardorf, as lead guardian, started the meeting with a condition report of Henri Blain, who will turn 83 this month.
While Blain is tended to regularly by a host of doctors, his Alzheimer’s symptoms are not improving, said Bardorf.
“Bleak is a good word,” he said.
Then the topic turned to the expectations of the probate court judge in Florida, who is expected to take over the case — at some point.
That judge wants all the Rhode Island local issues resolved, said Bardorf. He doesn’t want a “beehive of confrontation … he wanted it settled.”
“In the short term,” replied one of the lawyers, “it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”
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