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Court Considers Challenge to Reclusive Heiress’ Will

A New York City jury may soon determine the fate of an estate valued at over $300 million. The deceased, Huguette Clark, left a last will and testament, but her relatives have contested the document as fraudulent. At least 19 distant relatives-most of whom never even met Clark-could share in the estate if the New York County Surrogate’s Court determines her will is invalid. Recent news reports indicate the estate may settle with the would-be heirs to avoid a trial.

Clark died in May 2011 at the age of 104. Clark’s father, a former U.S. senator from Montana, left her an immense inheritance from his copper mining fortune. Huguette Clark’s estate included mansions in Santa Barbara and Connecticut as well as a 10,000 square-foot apartment in Manhattan. But Clark herself was rarely seen by anyone. A 2012 report by MSNBC documented Clark’s isolation and the mystery surrounding her final years.

Clark’s distant relatives long believed she was under the undue influence of her financial advisors, particularly her attorney. Clark’s last will and testament, dated 2009, left the bulk of her estate, including her California property, to a private foundation established under the will. Clark also left over $15 million to her longtime nurse, and made gifts to her attorney and other employees, but left nothing to any of her distant relatives. Before her death, Clark made gifts totaling more than $44 million to her nurse, attorney and others; the executor of Clark’s will now contends those gifts were coerced and has asked the court to order repayment of all funds back to the estate.

Clark had no spouse, children or surviving siblings. Indeed, there were no surviving relatives on her mother’s side. But there were at least 20 surviving descendants from her father’s first marriage, mostly grandnephews and grandnieces. According to MSNBC, 14 of these survivors never met or spoke to Clark, and none could recall seeing her in person in the past 50 years. Legally, however, you don’t have to a know a relative to inherit from them. If the Surrogate’s Court throws out the will, all would inherit a share of Clark’s estate under New York intestacy law.

Determining “Interested” Persons

In making your own will or trust as part of a California estate plan, it’s a good idea to make (and update, as necessary) a family tree. Even if you plan to exclude most relatives from your estate, it’s important to know which of them might have standing as an interested person in your estate. An interested person includes anyone you name as a beneficiary in your will, as well as any person that might inherit if your will is declared invalid.

If you have a spouse or children, then your list of interested persons usually begins and ends with them. If, like Huguette Clark, you had no living spouse, children or siblings, things can get infinitely more complicated. You’ll have to keep track of distant cousins. It’s especially important to note what relatives are still living. A person who dies before you generally cannot inherit from your estate.

Understanding the laws governing intestate succession will help strengthen your own estate planning. To speak with an experienced California estate planning attorney, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today.

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