In the spring of 2004, Anthony "Corky" Sliwkowski danced with his daughters at a family wedding. Photos taken that day show a loving father, embracing his girls and beaming for the camera.
Three months later, Sliwkowski, a Rhode Island dentist, was dead, killed instantly in a motorcycle crash.
The shock of his death, at age 60, hit his two young daughters hard. But another shock was waiting for the girls, then 11 and 13, on the second page of their father's will. There, in language signed two years before he died, Sliwkowski disinherited his two daughters and a grown son from a previous marriage, cutting his children out of his $3 million estate.
Three years after it was first unveiled, the will has divided the Sliwkowski family and inspired an unlikely alliance between the dead man's ex-wife, Barbara Sliwkowski, the mother of his two daughters, and his older brother, Joe Sliwkowski of Martha's Vineyard.
They say they want to protect other children from the emotional pain and financial insecurity of disinheritance, and will try to change Rhode Island law to ensure that fathers must support their minor children - even after death - if they leave an estate that is able to pay child support.
"What did these kids ever do to deserve this?" Barbara Sliwkowski said. "My goal is to prevent another family from going through this."
Some states have already wrestled with the question and determined that a father's duty does transcend his death. A Massachusetts ruling, decided by a 4-to-2 vote of the Supreme Judicial Court in 2000, found that a father's death "does not extinguish his duty to support his minor child," even if his will severs ties to the child. Other state courts have made similar rulings. In Rhode Island, however, the obligation has never been established, except in cases where it was agreed to before death.
Mark Sjoberg, the lawyer who represented Barbara Sliwkowski in her three-year fight for child support in Rhode Island courts, said he plans to propose such legislation on her behalf next month, through a legislative commission he sits on that works to modernize probate law. Sjoberg said child support should be treated like an outstanding debt, which an estate must pay after the debtor's death.
Barbara Sliwkowski said she hid the disinheritance from her daughters while she fought in court to have the will invalidated and the estate pay child support. The probate court granted her request for child support, but family members who had inherited the estate appealed the ruling to a higher court, where the case languished, she said.
Discouraged, she recently ended her long legal battle and negotiated a settlement with her former husband's sister, who inherited the estate.
The agreement provides each daughter with a $200,000 trust to be used primarily for education, in accordance with handwritten notes Corky Sliwkowski left behind but never wrote into his will.
Flossie and Denny Skirvin of Wilmington, Del., the dead man's sister and brother-in-law who inherited his estate, said in an interview that they believed his daughters had ample financial support from their mother's divorce settlement and their father's life insurance policy. They said they pledged from the start to honor Corky Sliwkowski's wishes, including the college trusts described in his handwritten notes, but were rebuffed when Barbara Sliwkowski went to court to invalidate the will.
"My brother was a wonderful, well-respected person of sound mind, and who is anyone to change his will, or anyone else's?" Flossie Skirvin said. "It's up to the individual, or why have a will?"
Barbara Sliwkowski said she fought the will in part to try and erase its rejection of her daughters. She said she only recently told them about the disinheritance clause, to prepare them for her public airing of the family drama.
Family members on both sides of the dispute agree on one thing: Corky Sliwkowski loved his daughters dearly. In the two years before he died, he saw the girls frequently, bought a camper to take them on road trips, and planned to expand his Rhode Island home to accommodate their visits, Joe and Barbara Sliwkowski said.
But Corky Sliwkowski never changed his will to reinstate his children. His brother and ex-wife said they believe the document was written when he was in a dark period caused by the manic-depressive disorder he had been diagnosed with a decade earlier. They said his illness could have caused him to forget what the will said, or postpone revising it.
The dead man's longtime pastor, the Rev. Joseph Creedon, of Kingston, R.I., said he believes Sliwkowski would have changed the will in time.
"You don't expect a will to come into play for years," he said. "So if you want to change it, you feel you have plenty of time."