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Dueling wills: The Huguette Clark saga plays on

Some readers might have heard of Huguette Clark, the eccentric heiress and last child of a former U.S. senator who stockpiled a fortune from mining interests. When Ms. Clark died in 2011 at 104 years of age, she left behind an estate worth an estimated $300 million.

Now, two years after her death, the New York Times notes that the continuing and unresolved saga surrounding her estate is instructive on many levels for people with a more modest amount of wealth.

Of immediate relevancy for purposes of estate planning is the will left behind by Clark. More precisely, Clark executed two wills that provided for vastly different outcomes. With so much money and other assets at stake, the second will is being challenged vigorously on grounds that Clark was incompetent when she signed it, and was manipulated by the parties who benefitted most from it.

In a nutshell: The first will divided the bulk of the estate to a number of unknown and unnamed relatives in Europe, who are, understandably, aggressively contesting the second instrument. That “dueling will,” as it is termed by the Times, was executed a month after the first document and provides that much of the money goes to a hospital and her caregiver, as well as to a god-daughter and a foundation to store her art collection and a vast trove of dolls. It leaves nothing to the distant relatives.

As commentators note, the Clark case has much to say about diminished capacity, creating a situation that virtually ensures a will contest, the strong advantages gained by executing one or more trusts in the administration of many estates and a host of other matters.

It is strongly advisable in virtually every case where there is an estate to be passed along that a proven estate planning attorney be consulted with to ensure that things are done right and that they optimally promote a person’s intentions.

In the case where an estate comprises considerable wealth and a number of parties might not be wholly in agreement as to how the estate should be divided, the need for proven legal counsel is even greater.

Source: New York Times, "How to avoid an estate battle after you die,"Paul Sullivan, June 14, 2013