Wills Week: A Reclusive Heiress, $300 Million, and a Contested Will

Monday, February 4, 2013 • by Sarah Whitman-Salkin

The story we're talking about today is fascinating, entertaining, and very complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we're using this story as a jumping-off point for a week-long discussion of Wills. There are so many issues raised in this story—multiple wills, inheritance rights, how and why to contest a will, and the sometimes fine line between eccentricity and incompetence—that we'll be breaking out the key points and discussing a different one every day this week. So stick around.


The cast of characters:

  • Huguette Clark, reclusive multi-millionaire heiress and philanthropist (1906-2011)
  • Wallace Bock, Ms. Clark's attorney
  • Irving Kamsler, Ms. Clark's accountant
  • Hadassah Peri, Ms. Clark's longtime private nurse
  • Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, where Ms. Clark lived for the last two decades of her life
  • The Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C., where Ms. Clark's father (the copper baron and U.S. senator from Montana, William A. Clark) served as trustee, and to which both Mr. Clark and Ms. Clark had donated significant amounts of money and art
  • Ms. Clark's extended family, including 21 half-grandchildren, half-great-grandchildren, and grand-half-nieces and nephew of Ms. Clark's half-sisters and half-brother

The key facts:

  • The value of Ms. Clark's estate at the time of her death: $306,489,687.23
  • The number of wills Ms. Clark wrote in her life: 3 (1929, March 2005, April 2005)
  • The year Ms. Clark was diagnosed with dementia: 2010
  • Ms. Clark's age at her death: 104

Huguette Clark was the daughter of William A. Clark, a copper baron who made his billion dollar fortune in the late 1800s. When he died in 1925, Ms. Clark inherited $500-700 million dollars. Mr. Clark donated his large (and very valuable) art collection to the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., where he had served as a trustee. Ms. Clark also inherited some of her father's art, and continued to collect art herself.

In 1928 Ms. Clark married, though she had no children and the marriage ended in divorce 2 years later. Ms. Clark penned her first will in 1929, as she contemplated divorce. In that first will she left everything she owned to her mother, Anna La Chapelle Clark. Ms. Clark's mother died in 1963; Ms. Clark did not draft a new will for another 75 years. (According to this first will, the Corcoran Museum would—by default—receive a $3 million trust created by Ms. Clark's mother.)

But 75 years later, in March 2005, Ms. Clark did write a new will. In this new will, $5 million would go to Ms. Clark's private nurse, Hadassah Peri, and the rest of her fortune would be distributed among her remaining extended family. The Corcoran Museum would receive nothing.

Then, only 6 weeks later, Ms. Clark wrote a third will. In this will,15% of the fortune would go to creating an arts foundation at her Santa Barbara, CA mansion, which would also be the recipient of all but one of her pieces of art. The Corcoran Museum would receive her Monet "Water Lilies" painting from 1907, valued at $25 million. $2.6 million would be divided among her doctor, her personal assistant, her lawyer Wallace Bock, her accountant Irving Kamsler, and Beth Israel Medical Center (the hospital where Ms. Clark resided for nearly 20 years). (Mr. Bock and Mr. Kamsler were also named as executors to Ms. Clark's estate, a job that would pay them roughly $8 million.) Sixty percent of her remaining estate and her extensive and valuable doll collection would go to her nurse, Ms. Peri. A goddaughter would receive 25% of the remaining estate. Ms. Clark's extended family would receive nothing.

Upon Ms. Clark's death on May 24, 2011, the April will was revealed. Then the March will was also revealed. Given the proximity of the dates that the March and April wills were signed, and given the stark differences in the wills instructions, there was cause for inquiry.

On the one side is Ms. Clark's extended family and the Corcoran Museum. The family argues that the third will was "improperly executed" and that Ms. Clark had been "taken advantage of by Mr. Bock, Mr. Kamsler, Ms. Peri, and others." The family believes that not only had Ms. Clark been coerced into writing and signing the April 2005 will, but also that Mr. Bock and Mr. Kamsler, her attorney and accountant, had mismanaged her affairs in her life, which resulted in unpaid taxes and forced her to sell numerous valuable paintings. The Museum has joined in supporting the family in their case; some are questioning the Museum's motives. (Ms. Peri's lawyer has suggested that the Museum "may be doing the bidding of family members when they should be doing the bidding of the beneficiaries of the Corcoran." The Museum says it must respect the “true intentions” of donors.)

On the other side, Ms. Clark's attorney and accountant claim that they served Ms. Clark well in her life, and her most recent will should be honored. Beth Israel Medical Center also believes that the April 2005 will should be upheld. In response to charges of the mismanagement of Ms. Clark's estate, Mr. Kamlser's attorney said, "He was doing the absolute best that he could looking out for her interests and complying with her wishes." Mr. Bock's attorney said of Ms. Clark, "She wanted to spend her money the way she wanted to spend it. [Bock] was hired to do what she wanted him to do." Beth Israel Hospital, which received money and a Manet painting (valued at $3.5 million), said in a statement, "We are disappointed at the attempt to take back charitable donations that Ms. Clark freely made to Beth Israel to express her gratitude for the hospital’s life-saving and compassionate care, and her recognition of the hospital’s important mission."

Considering how much money is at stake, it is obvious why so many parties have such strong feelings about which will should be honored. But who is right? Who can know what Ms. Clark intended? At this point, it is up to the Surrogate Court of New York to determine which of Ms. Clark's wills—her original will from 1929, her will from March 2005, or her will from April 2005—is the valid will. We'll just have to wait and see.

via the Washington Post