Lawsuit filed in family battle over Orange County megachurch

SANTA ANA, Calif. (KABC) -- A family fight over control of an Orange County megachurch after the death of the founder heads to the courts.

The family of Pastor Chuck Smith is embroiled in a legal battle over control his Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa megachurch. His daughter has filed suit alleging elder abuse and neglect when Smith died.

Pastor Chuck Smith died nearly a year ago. He was married to his wife Kay for 65 years. They grew their congregation from 25 people to 1,400 churches worldwide.

Janette Manderson, Smith's daughter, spoke exclusively to Eyewitness News on behalf of her 87-year-old mother, Kay, who suffers from dementia.

"It's still a shock. It's almost a year later and still I can't really process it. Why didn't they help my dad?" said Manderson.

A lawsuit filed on Kay's behalf alleges elder abuse and neglect, and points the finger at Smith's son-in-law, Brian Brodersen, married to the Smiths' youngest daughter, Cheryl.

The lawsuit alleges Smith's "death was hastened" and he suffered "significant pain and anguish" the night he had trouble breathing and died from a heart attack.

Smith had terminal lung cancer. Manderson was appointed by her parents as trustee and put in charge of his healthcare. She says she was out of town and not told how close he was to death.

"Nobody had called 911 until my nephew finally stepped in and did it. The nurse wouldn't do it and told him not to call 911," said Manderson.

"The son-in-law, Brian, is the one who oversaw the selection of the nurse and she's directly under his supervision, and from what we know he's the one that she contacted for instructions," said Jillyn Hess-Verdon, Kay Smith's attorney. "The evidence we have, the paramedics got there and said 'Why haven't you people called 911?'"

"When Pastor Chuck died, the church cut off Kay," said Hess-Verdon.

A monthly annuity benefit of up to $10,000 to support the Smiths was gone.

The lawsuit alleges the annuity was in exchange for Smith taking himself off the church payroll years before.

A $1-million life insurance policy was also gone.

The lawsuit alleges that in 2006, the board of directors got Smith to change the beneficiary from Kay and Smith's non-profit organization "The Word For Today" to the Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.

"I believe dad was pressured. The board started pressuring dad several years ago on various things," said Manderson.

The lawsuit alleges Brodersen and the board of directors, which he chairs, took advantage of Smith's failing health and age to take control of the megachurch.

According to the lawsuit, within a day of the pastor's death some members of the board took over the pastor's office and computers and took full control of The Word For Today Incorporated property.

The Word For Today non-profit organization includes radio broadcasts, books and DVDs.

"Pastor Chuck and Kay's desire was that The Word For Today be a non-profit under independent leadership so that it could oversee his legacy for many, many years to come," said Hess-Verdon.

Manderson says that "independent leadership" meant her and her family, not the board of directors.

"The board is holding on to everything of dad's and not giving it to us," said Mandrson.

Brodersen had no comment and referred Eyewitness News to Roger Wing, the board's assistant secretary. Wing said he couldn't comment on specific allegations but stressed: "Everything we did, we did according to the law and according to stipulations given ... what Pastor Chuck and the board had worked out."

"It makes me sad, it makes me feel that they're dishonoring my dad and disrespecting his wishes," said Manderson.

Manderson says the church began paying some of the monthly annuities owed, but only after she retained attorneys.

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