Judge orders house returned; nixes sham marriage

Give her back her house! That was the judge’s decision in the case of a mentally ill woman who was duped out of her home after marrying and transferring the deed to her new husband. She had lived in the Throggs Neck house all of her life, prior to finding herself homeless last year.

After reaching out to former assemblyman and attorney Stephen Kaufman who arranged for a pro bono lawyer, a court found Geraldine Panattieri, 58, mentally incapacitated on Tuesday, June 15. It voided her signing over her house to Joseph Lillard, a younger man who she befriended and married after her longtime companion died.

According to court documents, Panattieri had lived at 1055 Edison Avenue for her entire life. She was found wandering the streets in August 2009.

Bronx Supreme Court Judge Wilma Guzman stated in her legal decision that Panattieri was not able to make major life decisions, including her marriage to Lillard in October 2008 or signing documents that gave him ownership of the two-family house in May 2009.

She ordered the deed transferred and her marriage to dissolved, and appointed Family Service Society of Yonkers her legal guardian. Kaufman called the outcome a major win for the community.

“It was clear that she was being taken advantage of and no one from the city was doing anything about it,” Kaufman said. “It is a good win for the community. It shows that we have a community with a heart that really cares about people.”

Kaufman fought with city agencies to have Panattieri committed to Jacobi Medical Center, rather than being sent to a homeless shelter, so that she could be evaluated by psychiatrists. She was found to be psychotic and suffering from Schitzo Affective disorder. Kaufman then arranged for her to receive free counsel to get her marriage voided and her home returned and assistance to pay for treatment. He praised the judge’s decision in her case, saying that she saw through the ruse of the marriage.

“We had a judge that was learned and had a heart, which enabled justice to prevail, so this woman didn’t have a house stolen out from under her,” Kaufman said.This judge did some important things by taking such an aggressive position. It was clear to anyone who was in contact with this woman that she could not contract into a marriage and didn’t want to give away her house.”

Kaufman also had praise for his law office staff, which reached out to help Panattieri after a neighbor brought her to his office. Even though she was in a distraught state because of the stress of being on the street, she was treated with respect and dignity, Kaufman said.

Guzman’s decision strongly chastised Joseph Lillard, stating that based on his testimony he “engaged in a course of ‘self-dealing’ and exploitation of Geraldine Panattieri.” Her decision stated that Lillard, who is 13 years younger than Panattieri, knew of her vulnerable and unstable condition, and placed himself in a position of trust which he abused.

“I do a lot of pro bono work, and with a case like this, it was like a neon sign flashing,” Kaufman said. “Thank God we were here.”

Reach reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 742-3393 or procchio@cnglocal.com.

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