A $400 million twist: Huguette Clark signed two wills, one to her family

• By Bill Dedman

Investigative Reporter, msnbc.com

NEW YORK - There is a new surprise in the mysterious story of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. It turns out that she signed two wills, the first one benefitting her family, the second one cutting out her family altogether. And she signed them one after another, within six weeks.

Despite years of pleading from attorney after attorney, Clark reached age 98 without directing who should inherit one of America's great fortunes from the Gilded Age, estimated to be at least $400 million. She made no plan for her $100 million oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara, Calif.; her $20 million country house in New Canaan, Conn.; her three apartments on New York's Fifth Avenue, worth up to $100 million; her precious paintings by Renoir and Monet, or her doll collection worth millions.

Then, within six weeks, she signed two wills, right about the time that her family says her attorney stopped putting through their phone calls.

It appears both wills are genuine. That is to say, both were presented by her executors, who are her attorney and accountant. The second will was already filed in court by the executors in June, a month after her death in May at age 104. The first will was turned over by the executors voluntarily to her family, which filed it in court Monday morning along with a motion to enter the case.

This is the first step in a family effort to wrest control of Clark's fortune away from her attorney and accountant, who remain the subjects of a criminal investigation.

The family's motion accuses Clark's attorney and accountant of "plundering" her fortune.

"Before the court are substantial and gravely serious issues," the family attorney, John R. Morken, wrote in a sworn statement to the court on Monday, "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." (Document: Read the family's motion.)

On March 7, 2005, in her spartan hospital room at Beth Israel Medical Center on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Clark signed a will leaving $5 million to her longtime nurse Hadassah Peri, and everything else to her 21 closest relatives, who are descendants of her father from his first marriage, according to documents filed Monday morning in a New York court. You can read that first will here at msnbc.com.

On April 19, 2005, in the same hospital room, Clark signed a second will. This time her family got nothing. The nurse's share jumped to an estimated $34 million. There was half a million for her accountant and half a million for her attorney, who drew up both wills. Her doctor received $100,000. And the largest share went to a charitable foundation, controlled by the attorney and accountant, to set up an art museum in her California mansion, known as Bellosguardo. You can read that second will here.

Both wills are typewritten, with what appears to be her signature in a firm hand.

She also had two earlier wills from the years 1926 and 1929, when she was 19 and 22 years old. Both of those wills left everything to her mother, who died in 1963, so in effect those wills would also, under state law, have left everything to the relatives making a claim now.

What happened during those six weeks?

And so begins what could be a long, expensive battle for her fortune. The case may turn on the answer to these questions: What happened in those six short weeks to turn around the fate of her fortune? Did her attorney and accountant exercise undue influence on her decision? Did she have the mental capacity to know what she was signing? How close was she to her relatives? Will the judge allow her attorney to serve as an executor, and to be a beneficiary, after he drew up the will - the same attorney whose family benefitted from nearly $2 million in gifts from Clark? Will the judge allow her accountant, a convicted felon, to be an executor?

The relatives maintain in the new court documents that they were much closer than her attorney has portrayed. Though the Clark family was spread from California to New York to France, several family members were in regular contact with her over many years, exchanging holiday greetings and letters and having phone conversations arranged through her attorney, even as she secluded herself in a hospital room, hiding her location from even these relatives, according to the sworn statement by attorney Morken, who represents 19 of the 21 relatives.

 

A quiet life

Huguette Clark was born in Paris on June 9, 1906, the youngest child of U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark of Montana (1839-1925), known as one of America's copper kings. When she was a child, her father was described by The New York Times as either the richest or second-richest American, neck and neck with John D. Rockefeller. W.A. Clark made a fortune in copper mining in Montana and Arizona, and owned banks, railroads, newspapers, sugar, tea, timber, real estate and many other investments. He served one full term in the Senate as a Democrat from Montana, from 1901 to 1907, despite having to give up the seat earlier in 1900 in a scandal involving bribes paid to legislators. The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which removed the election of senators from the hands of legislators and gave it to the people, is a backhanded tribute to his legacy.

While serving in the Senate in 1904, the 65-year-old widower shocked the political and financial world by announcing that he had secretly remarried three years earlier, and that he and his 26-year-old wife already had a 2-year-old daughter, Andrée. A second daughter, Huguette, was born in 1906. When Huguette was about 4, the family of four moved into a 121-room house at Fifth Avenue and 77th Street in New York City, stuffed with the senator's collection of French paintings.

Her father the senator died in 1925. Huguette inherited one-fifth of his estate, which in today's dollars would have been worth about $3.6 billion -- her share being about $700 million in today's terms. She also inherited nearly all of her mother's estate in 1963.

The Clark name was largely forgotten, except to the occasional question on Jeopardy! and to historians in Montana and Arizona, and in Nevada, where his railroad spawned the city of Las Vegas and where Clark County is named for him.

Neither of the wills signed by his daughter leaves any money to those states.

 

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daughter of Butte Copper King William Clark, who made a fortune from the mines of Montana and Arizona, and from banks, railroads and other ventures. The heiress to the Montana copper fortune was born June 9, 1906, in Paris, and lived in Butte for a few years before and after the Clark family moved to New York City in 1910.

 

NEW YORK — There is a new surprise in the mysterious story of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. It turns out that she signed two wills, the first one benefitting her family, the second one cutting out her family altogether. And she signed them one after another, within six weeks.

Despite years of pleading from attorney after attorney, Clark reached age 98 without directing who should inherit one of America's great fortunes from the Gilded Age, estimated to be at least $400 million. She made no plan for her $100 million oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara, Calif.; her $20 million country house in New Canaan, Conn.; her three apartments on New York's Fifth Avenue, worth up to $100 million; her precious paintings by Renoir and Monet, or her doll collection worth millions.

Then, within six weeks, she signed two wills, right about the time that her family says her attorney stopped putting through their phone calls

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Published with permission from Bill Dedman

 

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