Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Legal Skirmishes Over Heiress Huguette Clark's $400-Million Estate Comes Down To A Battle of Wills — Two of Them.

Estate and probate lawyers a battle taking place in New York regarding the Estate of Huguette Clark. Huguette Clark, who had significant California property, died at the age of 104 in May 2011 in the New York City hospital where she had lived for at least 20 years. An MSNBC investigation also plays a role in this case. Her estate is estimated to be worth over $400 million.

In her 2005 will, she left large sums to a few people — including about $34 million to her nurse caretaker of 20 years — and asked that her Santa Barbara mansion be turned into an art museum. On Monday, however, a second will surfaced in court documents. It was signed just six weeks before the will that was previously made public and didn't mention anything about a museum. Instead, it left everything to 21 distant relatives who are now accusing Clark's longtime attorney and accountant of "plundering" her holdings.

That's a marked contrast from the later will, which specified that no money go to her family members, with whom she had "minimum contacts" over the years. What caused such a dramatic change of heart in such a short period is unknown. But in a filing with New York Surrogate's Court, the relatives' attorney, John R. Morken, wrote of "alleged deceit, undue influence and exploitation of a very elderly and extraordinarily wealthy woman at the hands of two professionals who, with the help of certain others, took control of her life, isolated her from family, and ultimately stripped her of her free will, as well as millions of dollars."

A group of family members made the same charges last year but failed to convince a New York judge that attorney Wallace Bock and accountant Irving H. Kamsler were helping themselves to Clark's fortune. However, after a series of reports on msnbc.com, New York prosecutors opened an investigation that is ongoing, according to Morken. Attorneys for both men have said they did nothing wrong and always acted in Clark's best interest.

But relatives, who said Bock kept them from visiting their great-aunt, were skeptical — and not just for financial reasons, according to Morken. "Even of greater concern to them is the family's heritage," he wrote. Huguette Clark's father was copper baron and former Montana Sen. William Andrews Clark. She grew up in privilege and at her death still owned apartments in one of Fifth Avenue's most elegant buildings, a large home in Connecticut, artworks that included a painting from Monet's "Water Lilies" series, a collection of French dolls, and a 23-acre bluff-top estate in Santa Barbara called Bellosguardo —Italian for "beautiful view."

By all accounts, it had been at least 50 years since she last set foot in Bellosguardo, a home with formal gardens that was maintained by a live-in manager. In her more recent will, she directed that a foundation be set up to run the new museum, with Bock and Kamsler operating it. That arrangement, the relatives said Monday, would allow the pair unfettered access to much of Clark's fortune. Even as Clark's executors, the men would make more than $20 million in commissions, according to Morken. Clark outlived her six brothers and sisters. She was divorced in 1930 and had no children.

Settlement of the conflict over her estate is expected to take several years. Although most estates are not worth this amount, once family disputes occur and litigation begins, it can take anywhere from months to years to settle all the claims. The trust will have its own attorney, the beneficiaries will have their attorneys, and the relatives presenting the second will and challenging the first will also have a set of attorneys. And what happens if the beneficiaries do not agree? More delays. Probate litigation is a very sensitive type of litigation and the emotions tend to run high.

Posted by Henry (Hank) J. Moravec, III, a partner at Moravec, Varga & Mooney, A Partnership. For a free 30 minute consultation (telephonic or in person) regarding your own situation, you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221.

With respect to probate, Hank Moravec has over 20 years' experience as one of the best Los Angeles probate attorneys and Los Angeles probate litigation attorneys and is available should you need legal advice regarding your own or a family member's situation. For a consultation, You can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221 to request a consultation.

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