Settling Large Estates

The NY Times has this interesting article about an estate and trust litigation settlement that has been reached in the Huguette Clark case in New York. Ms. Clark, who died in 2011 at age 104, leaving behind a roughly $300-500 million estate, elected to be a recluse for much of her adult life. Her story is told sympathetically and even-handedly by the recent book Empty Mansions (2013). (The title comes from a series of news stories about her mansions in Santa Barbara, CA, New York, and Connecticut which were left untouched and sat vacant for decades) Settling the estate was a wise decision by the various parties involved: ”Both the family and the beneficiaries had reasons to settle. Rolling the dice at a trial can mean losing everything. Both sides had already spent a great deal on pretrial research and legal fees. And a trial would be an exhausting endeavor, expensive for everyone, last weeks or months.” Empty Mansions, 345


The legal dispute over Clark’s estate arose because she executed 2 wills a few weeks apart in 2005: 1 Will left most of her estate to her surviving relatives (distant cousins, nieces, nephews), and another Will created a foundation in the Santa Barbara mansion and left large gifts to her healthcare providers, attorney, accountant, and mostly excluded her family. The distant relatives weren’t as concerned about inheriting part of her fortune as they were about the apparent manipulation of her by doctors, nurses, accountants, attorneys, and others, who took advantage of her generosity for private lucre. (More about those issues in future posts.) Still by all accounts, Ms. Clark ”lived a surprisingly rich life of love and loss, of creatively and quiet charity, of art and imagination. Though the platitude – money can’t buy happiness – may be comforting to those who are less than well heeled, great wealth doesn’t ensure sadness either.” Empty Mansions, 353.

Huguette was a daughter and an heir of Sen. W.A. Clark, a copper baron of the Gilded Age whose wealth was of a similar magnitude to Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and other Gilded Age business owners. Unlike his Gilded Age contemporaries, Sen. Clark did not due smart estate or business succession planning: ”The W.A. Clark business empire was not built for longevity, collapsing soon after its founder handed it to his children. While his Gilded Age contemporaries typically operated through hierarchies of executives and managers, creating vast corporate entities, W.A. ran his companies as essentially sole proprietorships, which he ruled autocratically. Having attended to every detail of his companies personally W.A. failed in succession planning.” Empty Mansions, 142.

One of her distant relatives summed up the issues she faced as the steward of a large estate: ”I think having such wealth can lead some people to have a lack of self-worth because of not having developed a lucrative career of their own or even having investigated their own potential. Having an overabundance of wealth can make people insecure around others who have far less than they do, since the former might wonder if potential partners or even friends are ‘only’ after them for their money. Well-meaning people of excessive wealth can feel anxious about the lack of perfection of charities they support, and about the fact that even as willing patrons they are powerless to obliterate suffering – all the while knowing that any small amount of money that they might spend on themselves is still enough to change or even save some lives. Wealth can lead to guilt over the unfairness of people working endlessly for them who have never been included fully into the family. In sum, having immense wealth can lead one to feel isolated and to have a false sense of being special.” Empty Mansions, 328 – 329.

Look for more posts soon on the Huguette Clark saga and lessons we can all learn from her story. In the meantime, if you need an experienced attorney to serve your estate planning needs (anything from a simple will, living will, and power of attorney, to complex business and tax planning with dynasty trusts for multiple generations), call my firm (913-707-9220) or email me ( for a convenient, free consultation. My firm is also experienced handling probate and trust administration – ensuring your Will proceeds smoothly through probate, or that your Trust works seamlessly to avoid probate and ensure your legacy for your family, business, and favorite charities. My law firm, Johnson Law KC LLC, can serve you or your family’s estate planningasset protectionelder law, or business needs, . My firm looks forward to serving you and your family with reliable, friendly experience and counsel at an affordable cost. One valuable lesson for us all from Huguette Clark’s life is don’t leave your legacy and your family’s inheritance at the mercy of a court settlement.

(c) 2013, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.