Update: The Case of the Copper Heiress Heads to Trial

Update to the update: A settlement agreement has been reached and trial avoided. Here’s the account from MS NBC, where reporter Bill Dedman broke the story and has followed it closely.

The legal world has continued to spin while I’ve been off launching my first mystery, Death al Dente. Many thanks to all of you who bought a copy or borrowed one from the library, came out to hear me speak, or otherwise helped me celebrate. You have made me welcome in libraries and living rooms, uttered kind words at just the right time, and helped make my dream come true.

HuguetteLet’s ease back in to talk of more serious subjects by updating a few stories. First, you all know my fascination with the story of Huguette Clark, the multi-millionaire daughter of William Clark, the scoundrel Copper King who bought himself a U.S. Senate seat from Montana. (Read my earlier posts here.) Huguette’s death in 2011 at 104 set off a battle over her estate — with an estimated value of $300 million — between her financial advisors and the heirs named in her will, and relatives asserting that those same advisors and legal heirs had used undue influence to keep them away from Clark and to insert themselves into her affections and her will. Which will controls? Should certain gifts made during her lifetime be ordered to be repaid, because of improper influence? Did her financial advisors mismanage her funds before her death, to the benefit of themselves and their families? Trial begins Tuesday, September 17, in Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan. I expect nationwide coverage.

Meanwhile, the investigative reporter who broke the story, Bill Dedman of MSNBC, and a EmptyMansions_cover_2013.07.10-197x300relative not involved in the suit, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., have written a book on Huguette and her life called, appropriately, Empty Mansions  (Random House, September 2013). Dedman will be in Missoula in early October for the Festival of the Book — I’ll be there, too, talking mysteries and Montana fiction with other Montana writers, and hope to catch his talk. (And yes, get a signed copy of the book!) Meanwhile, the website for the book  includes excerpts, photographs of Huguette’s doll collection, and aerial video of her Santa Barbara estate — which she hadn’t visited since the 1950s.

Whether you’re writing a historical novel set in the dying years of the Gilded Age, delving into the history of the Copper Kings and their influence over Montana, exploring allegations of financial influence and abuse, or are simply fascinated by the story of a woman who lived out her last years in a hospital, though she wasn’t ill and owned several amazing properties, who collected fine art and doll houses, this book promises to be an intriguing read and a good reference.

(Photos and links courtesy of Bill Dedman.)


Huguette Clark — a forthcoming book

Huguette Clark 2Readers know I’m fascinated by the story of Huguette Clark, the reclusive copper mining heiress who died in 2011 at age 104, and by the legal wrangling over her estate and what appears to have decades of manipulation and mismanagement. Read my earlier posts here. Now the MSNBC reporter who uncovered the story, Bill Dedman, is writing a book with a relative of Clark’s. “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune,” will be published Sept. 10 by Ballantine (Random House). Here’s a link to the cover and copy. The MSNBC stories are collected here. 

(Photo from MSNBC)

Huguette Clark — an update on a tragic heiress

I’m intrigued by the on-going saga–the only word–of reclusive Copper King heiress Huguette Clark, who died in early 2011 at 104, leaving what was originally asserted to be a $400 million estate–and about 400 million questions. (See my earlier posts on her Gilded Age apartments and jewels, the alleged mismanagement of her assets, before and after her death, and the claims by heirs that they had been prevented from seeing her and that a later will should be rejected in favor of an earlier will, on grounds of undue influence.) Reporter Bill Dedman of msnbc has been following the story, and now reports that the accounting filed in early October shows about $306 million in assets — with an additional $44 million in gifts potentially subject to repayment (or “claw back”).  He also reports that the will challenge will probably not go to trial later this year, as planned, but will probably be continued (the legal term for postponed) until early 2013.

Take a look at the Msnbc story for photos of the jewelry, homes, and apartments, and other assets. Curiously, a sheik’s bid for one of her three Manhattan apartments was rejected by the building’s board, primarily for privacy reasons. The other two have been sold.

Out here in Montana, where the money was dug out of the ground in the form of copper, fascination is high. So is the sympathy. Tourists in Butte are apparently dropping by the Clark family mansion, now a B&B, in record numbers.  Take a peek, and you’ll see why.


Update – Huguette Clark and undue influence

I promised updates to my earlier post about Huguette Clark, the copper heiress with the $400 million fortune who died last spring at 104.

Her long-time accountant and lawyer face challenges to their management of her assets, including claims that they engaged in tax fraud resulting in $90 million in unpaid federal gift taxes and penalties. Both men deny the claims. The accountant resigned his position in mid December.

Last Friday, a Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judge held that there was enough evidence to support the claims to suspend both men from further management of the estate.

A couple of notes on terms: The Surrogate’s Court is New York State’s name for the courts that handle cases involving probate of wills, administration of estates, and adoptions, and share jurisdiction with other courts over guardianships. The Surrogate’s Court website has a very helpful FAQ section answering questions about estates and court procedures. Some states call this simply “probate court,” while in others, the cases are handled by the “court of general jurisdiction,” the main trial court, rather than by a specialized court.

Books, Crooks & Counselors discusses the primary role of the public administrator, as the official who takes charge when a person dies with no immediately known will, heirs, or executor and handles the estate until heirs can be found– or if none, to closing. (The executor is also called the administrator or PR, for personal representative.) This case highlights another role of the public administrator: to investigate and prosecute alleged mismanagement by executors and the lawyers and accountants they hire to help administer estates. Of course, the potential heirs have a big role, too–as here, where relatives named in an earlier will but cut out of a later will are challenging it.

Stay tuned.

(The original reporting on the story of Huguette Clark was done by Bill Dedman of msnbc.com. See the two-part story and a photo gallery here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38719231/ns/business-local_business/ )


Huguette Clark and undue influence

Writers ask me a lot of questions about wills. One of the most common: “what is undue influence?” Short answer: using a confidential relationship or position of authority to induce the testator (the person making the will) to leave his property a certain way or to take unfair advantage of him. A judge can invalidate the entire will or a specific provision.

Like many Montanans, I’m fascinated by the story of Huguette Clark, reclusive daughter of Copper King William Clark.

Her obituary reports that when she died in May 2011 at 104, relatives claimed they had been prevented from seeing her for years, and accused her lawyer and accountant of plundering her estate. (Both are now under investigation by the Manhattan DA’s office.) A will signed in April 2005 left most of her $400 million fortune to her nurse and charity. Now her nieces and nephews have filed a will signed just a month earlier leaving much of money–or what’s left of it–to them.

No doubt the will contest will focus on claims of undue influence. What was her physical and mental condition when she signed the later will? Does the asset distribution demonstrate mental unbalance or influence? What was her relationship with the beneficiaries? Is there evidence of other misdeeds that might have unduly influenced her–like being intentionally isolated from her family? Do the gift of a $10,000 dollhouse to her lawyer’s granddaughter or a $1.5 million security system to the Israeli settlement where his daughter and her family live show a pattern of plunder–or an authentically close relationship? Proof that the lawyer and accountant stripped millions from her accounts during her life, with the potential for millions more in administrative fees after her death, could further support the claims of undue influence.

Hugeuette Clark’s fortune was gilded with copper, though she never lived in Butte, Montana, “the richest hill on earth,” where most of it came from. According to an investigative series by Bill Dedman of msnbc.com in 2010, she lived in a NY hospital the last twenty years of her life–despite owning a $24 million Connecticut estate, a 42-room apartment on Fifth Avenue, and an oceanfront Santa Barbara estate that she hadn’t visited in more than 50 years. She died surrounded by her childhood doll collection.  

It may be that Huguette Clark never recovered emotionally from the death of her older sister in 1919, the scandals that still trail her father, her own divorce in 1930, or a host of other rumors and potential embarrassments.

From life’s tragedies, writers draw inspiration–for the emotional trauma, the telling details, even the ways the law can serve–or be abused.

(Photo of nine-year-old Huguette, right, with her father and sister Andree, taken about 1915, from the Montana Historical Society Photo Archive. Later photo from the Associated Press.)

(The original reporting on the story of Huguette Clark was done by Bill Dedman of msnbc.com. See the two-part story and a photo gallery here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38719231/ns/business-local_business/ )