The legal dispute over an inheritance from a man who was once one of Hall County’s biggest landowners goes before the Georgia Supreme Court next week, with a woman who claims she is a daughter born out of wedlock challenging the two sisters named in the will.
John E. “Sonny” Buffington died in 2006 at age 64 following heart surgery. Buffington was owner of a successful highway construction business and farmed about 2,000 acres of land in East Hall off Holly Springs Road.
The will Buffington signed in a hospital room in August 2006 stated that he had two children: Beth Buffington Hood and Ginger Buffington Folger. They are named as co-executors of the estate and trustees of any trusts set up for their benefit.
But the will also stated that bequests were left “to my children surviving me,” with a trust “for each and every child of mine.”
Regina Gordon Todd, 40, asserts that she is one of those children and is entitled to a portion of the inheritance as a member of a “class” of people. In court filings, her attorneys point to a sworn deposition taken during Buffington’s 1994 divorce, in which he testified that he and a woman who was not his wife, Peggy Marlow — later Peggy Gordon — conceived a child during his marriage to Linda Buffington.
Sonny Buffington said in the deposition that he provided financial support for Regina Gordon, now Regina Gordon Todd, including paying for her college education. Regina Todd’s mother worked for Buffington’s contracting company for years after her daughter’s birth.
Hood and Folger say Todd has no claim to the estate.
The will specifically states that Buffington had “two living children,” and names them. It also defined the word “children” in the will as “lawful blood descendants.”
Todd was not legitimized as Buffington’s daughter, and her birth certificate identified her mother’s then-husband as the father.
J. Vincent Cook, the Athens attorney representing Todd, said the attorneys who created the will never were told that Todd was to be excluded.
“If they knew she was supposed to be excluded, they would have put it in there,” Cook said. “If she’s a child, she’s entitled to part of the estate.”
Cook maintains it was common knowledge that Buffington was Todd’s father, but said she is willing submit to DNA testing, if necessary.
The attorney for Hood and Folger said it was “unclear” that Todd was in fact Buffington’s daughter, and regardless, the language of the will is specific as to who the beneficiaries are.
“There are only two trustees,” said Wade Watson III, the Atlanta attorney representing Hood and Folger. “If he had intended there to be more, he would have named other trustees. But the main thing is he defined his children as Beth and Ginger.”
Watson noted that Todd visited Buffington in his hospital room the same day he signed the will.
“If he intended for her to be included in the children, he would have named her on the first page,” Watson said.
Watson added that Todd was already the beneficiary of life insurance policies taken out by Buffington.
Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Tuesday before the Georgia Supreme Court. The justices must decide whether Hall County Probate Court Judge Patti Cornett was correct in denying a motion for summary judgment made by Hood and Folger which requested that Todd’s claims be dismissed. Cornett decided a hearing on the evidence should be held, prompting Hood and Folger to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Watson, the attorney for the Buffington sisters, said he hopes the state Supreme Court will bring closure to a dispute has held up the administration of the estate for more than three years.
“I hope we get a clear decision so we can bring this to an end,” Watson said.