The public administrator in charge of winding down the estate of the late copper heiress Huguette Clark recently petitioned a New York probate court to order her caretakers to return millions of dollars in gifts. According to the administrator, the recipients took advantage of Clark’s feebleness and manipulated her into making those gifts.
In total, the administrator is attempting to reclaim $37 million of the $400 million estate, and is also requesting an investigation into whether other recipients of Clark’s generosity should be required to return gifts.
The case is an extreme example of the type of thing that can happen in estates where the intentions of an elderly person in making gifts are not clear. In these cases, individuals who expected to inherit more or anything at all may bring challenges when the deceased didn’t dispose of their estate in a way they feel is consistent with previous expressions of intent or with the person’s character. These fights can sometimes be long and drawn out, and the costs for an estate can be high.
Clark’s last will, signed in April 2005, left most of her fortune to charity, with over $30 million going to her private nurse. That will was a significant change from a will signed six weeks before, which left most of her estate to her 20 great-nieces and great-nephews. They are behind a challenge separate from that of the public administrator.
A probate court handling these types of cases has to attempt a reconstruction of the deceased person’s intention and mental state. The public administrator in this case claims Clark was frail, secluded and exploited, but her recipients say she was a generous woman who freely made the gifts to those she appreciated.
In the Clark cases, there is also the issue of whether her lawyer and accountant properly advised her.
While it would be difficult to eliminate all possibility of these types of conflicts in probate, thorough estate planning can do a lot to reduce their likelihood.
Source: Fox News, “Heiress’ generous gifts in court fight,” Jennifer Peltz, June 17, 2012