How to Avoid an Estate Battle After You Die

It might seem that a woman who died at 104 after spending 20 years in a hospital despite being healthy enough to live in one of her three stately homes, accumulated a vast collection of dolls and preferred to communicate in French even though her father had been a United States senator would have little to teach the rest of us.

But two years after the death of that woman, Huguette Clark, the last surviving daughter of William A. Clark, who made a fortune in copper mining, her $300 million estate is still being disputed. And the battle has plenty of lessons for people with far less money.

At issue in Mrs. Clark’s case are two wills signed six years before her death in 2011. The first would have left most of her fortune to 21 distant relatives she did not know, may never have met and did not list by name. The second, signed a month later, increased the bequest for her caregiver, gave money to a goddaughter and established a foundation at her mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif., for her art and doll collection. The distant relatives got nothing.

The dueling wills have become part of a highly publicized court case involving Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings, valued at the time of Mrs. Clark’s death at $25 million. The case has also ensnared New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, accused of pressing Mrs. Clark to make a big donation.

Documents full of intrigue have been filed in court — including a new cache just this week challenging the Corcoran Gallery’s claims — in preparation for a trial in September. The relatives could receive millions of dollars each if one or both wills is overturned or a settlement is reached. The caregiver and charities Mrs. Clark gave her money to could get nothing. Then there are the millions of dollars in legal fees to law firms and the tens of millions of dollars in estate taxes to the federal government, which will rise substantially if more money goes to the heirs than to charitable organizations.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure this case is being litigated with the right parties and not people who are trying to align themselves for ulterior motives,” said a lawyer, John D. Dadakis, in explaining the latest filings against the Corcoran. Mr. Dadakis is a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight, which is representing Mrs. Clark’s estate

It’s a big mess. But the dispute over Mrs. Clark’s two wills has implications for people with far less money. When is a person too old to decide her affairs? How can you insure that your money goes to the people and institutions you want to get it? Is there a way to prevent expensive lawsuits?

“People are living longer and they’re having periods of diminished capacity that are more and more common,” said Alan F. Rothschild Jr., a lawyer in Columbus, Ga., and a former chairman of the American Bar Association’s real property, trust and estate law section. “The litigation in this area is increasing because people are willing to sue more, even family members and the banks.”

Here is a look at some common issues raised in Mrs. Clark’s case.

DISPUTING HEIRS Challenges to wills by distant relatives are so common that lawyers have a nickname for those people: “laughing heirs” — as in they will be laughing all the way to the bank if their challenge succeeds.

“People tend to come out of the woodwork and believe that they’re closer than they are and should have some claim,” said a litigator who specializes in contested wills who spoke anonymously because other lawyers at her firm worked with some of the heirs in the Clark case. “The most often-challenged wills are those for people who don’t have direct, obvious heirs.”

A more common situation arises when a parent treats children differently. The trickier cases are those in which family members have had a falling out.

Paige K. Ben-Yaacov, a partner in the private client section of Baker Botts, said she counseled clients not to divide their estates unevenly. “They’re just making matters worse and opening the estate up to litigation.”

In Mrs. Clark’s case, she did not name her relatives in her wills because she did not know most of them. For people who intentionally leave out children, Ms. Ben-Yaacov advises creating a trail of estate documents over many years laying out their wishes in detail.

Mrs. Clark’s second will was in effect for six years before she died — normally long enough to establish that this was her intent, had she not been 98 when she signed it.


Published: June 14, 2013, New York Times


A version of this article appeared in print on June 15, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: In the Battle Over the Estate Of a Wealthy Recluse, Some Lessons.


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