The last link to New York’s Gilded Age, the age of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Guggenheims, Huguette Clark, copper heiress, died at the age of 104, leaving the future of her $400 million fortune clouded in uncertainty with two conflicting wills.
The youngest child of copper king, U.S. Senator (and scoundrel) William Andres Clark left it until very late to direct who should inherit one of America’s greatest Gilded Age fortunes. Until the age of 98, Huguette Clark had made no plans for her $100 million ocean-edge property in Santa Barbara, CA, her $20 million country house in New Canaan, CT, her three apartments on New York’s Fifth Avenue worth $100 million, or her multi-million dollar art collection, including paintings by Renoir and Monet.
And then, all of a sudden, the reclusive heiress signed two wills within six weeks of each other — the first left her fortune to her family, the second left her family out entirely. Both wills are genuine in that both were presented by Ms Clark’s executors — her attorney and her accountant; the second will was filed in court by the executors a month after her death, and the first will was voluntarily turned over to her family.
Ms Clark’s family have since filed the first will in court, alongside a motion to wrest control of the estate away from the two professionals who are already subjects of a criminal investigation into the handling of Ms Clark’s finances.
“Substantial and gravely serious issues” are being presented to the court, family attorney John R. Morken wrote in his sworn statement. Issues of “alleged deceit, undue influence and exploitation of a very elderly and extraordinarily wealthy woman at the hands of two professionals who…took control of her life, isolated her from family, and ultimately stripped her of her free will, as well as millions of dollars.”
In the first will, Ms Clark left most of her significant fortune to her twenty-one extended family members. But in the second will, Ms Clark expressly excluded her family whom, she said, had not been in close contact, and instead left $34 million to her long-time nurse, half a million to her accountant and half a million to her attorney who drew up both wills. Her doctor was also given $100,000 but by far the largest share went to a charitable foundation, controlled by the attorney and accountant, to set up an art museum in her California mansion.
In order to determine the legality of the wills, and what should happen next, questions are being asked about what could possibly have happened during those six weeks to provoke such an about-face.
Did her attorney and accountant exercise undue influence on her decision? Did she know what she was signing? How close was she really to her family? Will the judge allow her attorney to serve as an executor, and to be a beneficiary? Will the judge allow her accountant, a convicted felon, to be an executor?
The close timing of the wills, Schlesinger said, could be a problem for the relatives if they choose to argue non-competence at the time of signing the second will. “How can you argue,” he said, “that she was competent in March but not competent in April?” Where the relatives might have more traction, however, is with their claim of undue influence that would allow them to knock out both wills.
If successful, they could then revert to two earlier wills from 1926 and 1929, when Ms Clark was 19 and 22 years old. In these wills, Ms Clark left everything to her mother, but since she died in 1963, state intestacy laws would bequeath everything to the surviving relatives.
The dual roles of Ms Clark’s attorney is another potential problem. It is generally frowned upon in New York for the attorney who drafts a will to be a beneficiary. Additionally, the burden of proof is on the attorney to show that no undue influence was exercised. With the family of Ms Clark’s attorney benefiting from gifts to the tune of nearly $2 million, that burden is definitely weighty in this instance. Moreover, it is not always accepted for an attorney who drafts a will to serve as an executor, which puts the attorney in line for an executor’s fee of roughly 2 percent.
We’ll be following this story as it plays out in the courts. And regardless which parties inherit the much-desired fortune, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that this fabulous legacy of the Gilded Age is preserved for future generations to admire and enjoy.