By Jill Besl
Heiress Huguetta Clark's death in 2011 at the age of 104 spawned numerous lawsuits that have dragged on for years. At her death, Clark's estate totaled more than $307 million and included an original Renoir, a Stradivarius violin and an original edition of Paradise Lost. She had no husband, children or siblings; only distant relatives with whom she had little contact.
At her passing, two wills were found. The first will, signed March 7, 2005, left everything to her distant relatives but this will had the word “revoked” handwritten and a line drawn through the first page. The second will, signed just a few weeks later on April 5, 2005, cut out the relatives, stating: I intentionally make no provision in this my last will and testament for any members of my family, whether on my maternal or paternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years.” Instead, the new will left $1 million to the hospital where she spent the last 20 years of her life after a serious bout of skin cancer, $100,000 to her personal physician, gifts to the caretakers of her various properties as well as gifts to her lawyers and accountants. Her California property went to a foundation that was to be established to promote the arts and her long-time daytime nurse received Clark's $1.7 million doll collection and 60% of the estate.
It's certainly not difficult to figure out what came next. The relatives contested the April 2005 will, claiming that Clark had been coerced into excluding them from her estate. After years of legal back-and-forth, a tentative settlement was reached in September 2013. Under the terms, the relatives would divide $34.5 million among themselves and many of the other bequests from the second will would not be honored. Then, to complicate matters further, in January 2014, Geraldine Coffey, Clarks night-duty nurse for 20 years would not agree to the settlement. The attorneys for the estate argue that Coffey caused Clark distress by pressuring her for money.
The drama that has persisted for the past three years since Huguetta Clark's death and has signs of continuing. It could have easily been avoided with the proper estate planning documents. As Florida Certified Elder Law Attorney Joseph S. Karp so aptly summed it up: “Multi-millionaires or not, all of us should take steps to ensure that in death, our wishes are carried out and those we care about most are protected.” Seek counsel from an experienced elder law attorney to make sure your family – or those who you wish to receive your assets – understand what you want at your death.