Charity begins at home: heiress fights to keep fortune of deathbed Batchelor

HE WAS the darling of Miami’s high society, a kindly tycoon who wrote fat cheques for charity, showered money on sick children and rubbed shoulders with the political elite.

But the death of 81-year-old George Batchelor three weeks after marrying a woman nearly half his age has led to an unseemly legal row over who should have control of the 220m fortune he left behind.

On one side of the courtroom is brunette Amanda Rodgers, 41, who wed the ailing aviation magnate at his Miami Beach mansion in July. On the other is Batchelor’s son Douglas, who claims the marriage was a sham.

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And at the centre of the drama is a two-page, hand-written pre-nuptial contract that Rodgers got her husband-to-be to sign on their wedding day, naming her president of his charitable foundation, worth 190m and agreeing to leave her his 6m home, 16m in cash, a holiday resort in Costa Rica and ownership of a music recording company.

The document overrode a will written a year ago in which the multimillionaire bequeathed his sweetheart just 2m, left the Batchelor Foundation in the hands of its existing trustees and stated that he wanted his house to go to charity. A judge in Miami has now issued a temporary blocking order barring Rodgers from operating the charity, ruling that the old man was "gravely ill and confused" when he put his signature to the July pre-nuptial contract.

Douglas claims his father’s philanthropic legacy is at risk. Batchelor’s endowment for children and the environment would be "gutted" under Rodgers’ control, he alleges.

Douglas said: "I can’t imagine a more outrageous example of a senior citizen having his whole life’s work hijacked... because of greed. "

But Rodgers claims Douglas, a television evangelist who fell out with his father years ago, has "made a mockery of his wishes".

She said: "George personally dictated the terms of the pre-nuptial agreement to a nurse who wrote them out by hand… The only thing I wish to see happen is that George’s wishes be carried out." Rodgers argues that without a pre-marital contract she would have been entitled to a far larger share of her dead husband’s estate under Florida law.

On the day he married Rodgers, the frail groom - weak from lung cancer - exchanged vows sitting down and was so exhausted by the ceremony that an hour later he returned to his bed for a rest.

Father Patrick O’Neill, a Catholic priest and friend of the family, told a court hearing that he had been invited to the house for what he thought was just a social visit but arrived to find Rodgers in a lavender-coloured wedding dress urging Batchelor to sign the pre-nuptial contract.

He said Batchelor was sitting on the edge of his bed breathing oxygen through a tube.

"He was weak, very, very weak," testified O’Neill. "Amanda raised her voice and said: ‘George, we have to sign these documents.’"

However Rodgers’ lawyer William Davis, who personally witnessed the signing, paints a different picture. He insists Batchelor was mentally alert and aware of proceedings, dismissing the lawsuit as the action of a jealous son disappointed at his inheritance.

"There is no question George Batchelor knew what he was doing," said Davis.

The lawsuit notes that the agreement signed in July ran to just two pages, yet the couple had once negotiated a far more official version which ran to 24 pages and which recorded Batchelor’s belief that "gifts of significant sums of wealth to one’s spouse, children and other close family members are in fact adverse to the long-term best interests of those persons."

But the document was never signed because it did not grant Rodgers ownership of jewellery which she felt belonged to her.

In addition, papers Bachelor signed in the days following his wedding dismissing the Batchelor Foundation’s longtime trustees and replacing them with a board chaired by Rodgers were typed in print too small for him to read, the lawsuit claims.

Born in Oklahoma, George E. Batchelor learned to fly at the age of 16 and went on to help design the P-51, a Second World War fighter aircraft, before serving with the US Army Air Corps. After the war, he launched his own airline company and built an aviation empire based on cargo services to Latin America.

But it was his generosity to charitable causes that earned him the most respect as he ploughed more than 64m into good causes including the University of Miami School of Medicine where he sponsored a children’s health research institute, the city’s science museum, a project for the homeless and the Miami Metrozoo which named a tiger in his honour.

His relationship with Rodgers, an employee of one of his aviation companies, began following his divorce from his third wife, a 35-year-old, in 1998. He invited Rodgers for a cruise to the Bahamas on his private yacht as their first date. They moved in together the following year.

The couple were embraced by Miami’s glitzy society circuit, attending gala balls and banquets and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Governor Jeb Bush, brother of President George W Bush.

Batchelor’s death on July 29 drew fond tributes. Donna E Shalala, President of the University of Miami, called him a caring philanthropist with a "huge heart", while the Dean of the Medical School, John G Clarkson remembered him as "demanding but kind - with a genuine love for his family and this community."

But the final verdict on the real depth of his love for Amanda Rodgers must now be decided in court.