The New York Times reports on the strange case of Huguette Clark, a New York copper heiress who died in 2011 with an estate valued at over $300 million. (“The Legal Fight Over the Two Wills of a Very Private Heiress,” New York Times, Sunday, September 15, 2013.) While far removed from the probate courts of the Bay Area, the Clark case contains themes present in many estate and trust litigation cases.
Mrs. Clark, who never had children, waited until her late nineties to execute a will, leaving most of her estate to distant relatives, many of whom she had never met. Only six weeks later, she executed a second will, which gave most of her estate to a private foundation for the arts, after making specific gifts to various individuals, including her nurse, her doctor, and the hospital where she lived for the last 20 years of her life. The lawyer who wrote the will, and the accountant (who provided “input”) each received gifts under the will and were named as executors and directors of the new foundation.
Not surprisingly, the family members sued to overturn the second will, “claiming that Mrs. Clark was coerced in to changing it by people around her who, with the hospital, kept her dependent and exploited her age and vulnerability.”
It’s an interesting story (don’t miss Mrs. Clark’s affinity for vintage Barbie dolls, which her personal assistant — who received $500,000 under the will — would dutifully arrange and photograph) that will no doubt generate tabloid headlines of greed and opportunism. But it also serves as a cautionary tale for clients contemplating estate planning or concerned about potential inheritance disputes among their heirs: Don’t put off estate planning.
If Mrs. Clark had intended to cause a will contest she couldn’t have done a much better job than waiting until age 98 to make a will and then changing her beneficiaries in a new will only six weeks later. After all, who wouldn’t wonder what happened in those six weeks that caused her to change her mind?
Jury selection is scheduled to begin this week.