Huguette Clark is a woman who definitely could have used a good Estate Planner. Heiress to Copper Magnate Senator William Clark of Montana, Huguette was heir to hundreds of millions of dollars, several sprawling homes, and numerous valuable artworks.
After living the last two decades of her life at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in NYC, she died at the age of 104 in 2011. Since her death, her estate has been in litigation, with the latest suit having just settled August 26th.
The matter most recently in court was a claim by her estate (controlled by NYC public administrator) to recover approximately $4 million dollars in gifts given to Beth Israel Hospital. The reason for the suit was alleged Elder Abuse, specifically that Ms. Clark had been manipulated into giving the gifts to the Hospital. The judge hearing the matter stated that her conclusion would be based on “whether or not the decedent possessed the higher level of mental capacity to support the ability to make valid gifts.” The issue of mental capacity is one of the key factors in determining if financial elder abuse has occurred. The estate's claim of financial elder abuse was subsequently overturned. The judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on the gifts, which included a valuable Edouard Manet painting, “Pivoines dans une bouteille”.
Since her death in 2011, Huguette's estate had been in a very public legal feud, with multiple court hearings. The lawsuits hinged around the fact that Huguette wrote two wills within six weeks of each other, as well as the claims by executors of her estate that she lacked mental capacity and was in essence, insane. They painted her as an "eccentric recluse" who wore a "soiled bathrobe" and was a scant 75 pounds. Doctors at the hospital maintained that Huguette was extremely mentally sharp until the end, but was nevertheless "extremely frightened" of the outside world and lacking in her "concept of money".
While one could imagine her having difficulty comprehending financial sums, as she grew up with such excess, how Huguette came to fear the outside world is a subject of fascination. In 2010, NBC News began a series of investigative reports on Ms. Clark. Of particular interest to the reporter were her several vast mansions which were meticulously maintained, but never lived in.
While the executors of Huguette's estate (on behalf of her family) used financial elder abuse as a basis for their case, her money was at the heart of the legal battle. The two wills Huguette executed were vastly different - one left all her money to the distant relatives, while the other cut out her relatives completely, and left her millions to arts foundations, the hospital, and those who cared for her (doctors and nurses). The will contest which followed her death resulted in her relatives receiving $34.5 million after taxes, $85 million going to a CA arts foundation, $35 million to the DC Corcoran Gallery, and a whopping $24.5 million dollars in legal fees.
It seems that this payout did not satisfy her family members, however, as they subsequently went after nearly $100 million dollars that Huguette gave away during her lifetime.
This current court fight comes eight months after Clark’s 20 distant relatives won a $34.5 million settlement in a separate will contest. Other payouts in that previous estate battle include $85 million to a California arts foundation established in the heiress’ memory, $35 million to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and a whopping $24.5 million in legal fees.
Now the executors, on behalf of the family, are going after over $100 million that Clark gave away during her lifetime.
The lawsuit that settled on August 26th of this year was only one part of the family's mission to recover her fortune. The Manhattan Surrogate Judge presiding over this case ruled that a separate lawsuit against two doctors and a nurse who cared for Ms. Clark could proceed. The physicians and nurse had been given approximately $3.6 million in gifts by Huguette.
Even in our relatively quiet East Bay town of Walnut Creek, I frequently see such complex estate litigation cases, albeit with far less funds. The majority of my elder law cases involve alleged financial elder abuse, will and trust disputes, and questions of mental capacity. The importance of having a solid estate plan as well as specific directions on how your estate should be managed should you become incapacitated cannot be overstated. For a free consultation, call my downtown Walnut Creek Elder Law office at 925-322-1763. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.