Anthea Law

Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous and Dead: What Happens to Their Will?

Huguette Clark was the daughter of Senator William A. Clark, an industrialist and a copper tycoon during the turn of the twentieth century. She was born on June 9, 1906, and in a lifetime that spanned over a century, amassed a fortune worth nearly $300 million. Her only sibling, a sister, died of meningitis while she was still young. Ms. Clark married in 1928 but divorced in 1930. She was predeceased by her mother and her father, and never had any children.

Ms. Clark owned three apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue in New York, spanning the entire eighth floor of the building, a 52-acre estate in Connecticut known as Le Beau Chateau, and an estate known as Bellosguardo in California. She also owned countless priceless pieces of artwork and antiques, including, but not limited to, a rare 1709 violin made by Antonio Stradivari, an 1882 Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting entitled In the Roses, a Claude Monet painting from his series of oil paintings known as the Water Lilies, a pastel drawing by Edgar Degas known as Danseuse Faisant des Pointes, and a rare nine-carat pink diamond by Dreicer & Company.

For all her wealth and her possessions, Ms. Clark lived like a recluse. For the last twenty years of her life, despite owning spacious apartments and mansions, she voluntarily lived in the Doctors Hospital and then the Beth Israel Medical Centre in New York, even though she was not ill and did not need to be hospitalized. It appears that she somehow preferred the hospital life and the companionship of her private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri, over that of empty rooms filled with artwork.

Ms. Clark died on May 24, 2011, just two weeks shy of her 105th birthday. Ms. Clark’s Will, executed on April 19, 2005, left $30 million to her nurse, Ms. Peri, $12 million to her goddaughter, $500,000 to each of her attorney and her accountant, $8 million to the Belloguardo Foundation which was to be created, and some smaller bequests to employees who managed her residences. The remainder of her estate (almost 75%) was to go to charity. Her Will contained the following clause:

I intentionally make no provision in this my Last Will [and] Testament for any members of my family, whether on my paternal or maternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years. The persons and institutions named herein as beneficiaries of my Estate are the true objects of my bounty.

What happened after her death?

Nineteen of her relatives went to Court to have her Will overturned. If they were successful, they would equally share her entire fortune of over $300 million. These nineteen relatives, fourteen of whom acknowledged in Court proceedings that they had never even met Ms. Clark, were her half-grandnieces and grandnephews and her half-great-grandnieces and grandnephews. In the half-century prior to Ms. Clark’s passing, she did not reach out even to the four relatives who had occasionally communicated with her.

After various negotiations and even jury selection for a trial, a settlement was reached where Ms. Clark’s nineteen relatives agreed to share $34.5 million, with the balance of her $300 million estate (less taxes and legal fees for the estate and for each of the nineteen relatives) going to a new foundation for the arts to be called the Bellosguardo Foundation. Ms. Clark’s nurse received nothing and agreed to return $5 million of the $31 million that was previously gifted to her and her family by her employer.

Do you think Ms. Clark would be happy with this outcome?

What can we learn from the strange and unparalleled life and death of Ms. Clark?

Retain a lawyer who practices exclusively in the area of wills and estates to advise you as to who may or may disinherit from your estate, to whom you owe a legal obligation to, and to prepare a legally valid will for you, so that when you die (not if you die, as it is a certainty that you will die), your estate will be dealt with in accordance with your wishes and not in accordance with those you may not have wished to benefit.