The sum includes $3 million spent on dolls and about $2 million on the attorney’s favorite charity. There was even $1.85 million paid to an Israeli settlement in which Bock’s daughter lived. The hospital’s price tag was nearly $5 million, which would not seem out-of-line for 22 years of time Clark spent there, except that she was reportedly in good health for most of that time.
Not surprisingly, Clark’s distant family members are questioning everything and have filed to challenge the validity of Clark’s will. If they win, 21 distant family members will inherit her wealth, instead of her art foundation and the other named beneficiaries.
In addition to claiming mental incompetency, the challenge undoubtedly will focus on the allegation of undue influence. That is when a person, or people, uses coercion or other improper means to convince someone to leave them assets (such as through a will) when the person wouldn’t have otherwise done so.
This will be a big question in this case, for several reasons. First, the attorney and accountant held power of attorney over Clark. Second, there were her odd and isolated living arrangements. Finally, Bock and Kamsler were both named as will beneficiaries — not to mention that they stand to receive $16 million or more in executor fees (according to the MSNBC.com report). They clearly will not have an easy fight on their hands defending themselves and the will.
In New York, as in most states, the law will actually assume undue influence existed in certain circumstances. This happens when someone had a trusted, confidential relationship with the person in question (such as would exist with a power of attorney or an attorney-client relationship) and that trusted person benefited from the will, especially where the same person or people were somehow involved in the will preparation process. While this law varies from state to state, in New York it means that Bock and Kamsler will have to present evidence that the will was done without improper influence by them. This is not a simple legal hurdle to clear under the circumstances of this case.
The sad part is that if Clark did indeed want to benefit a charitable foundation rather than her distant family members, precautions could have been taken to protect those wishes. If her will is ultimately stricken based on undue influence by her attorney and accountant, then none of the wishes in her will would be followed.
This is a valuable lesson for clients, even for those with fortunes of far less value than $400 million. Whenever there is a will or trust done under circumstances that are questionable or which could lead to a lawsuit later, extra care should be used to make sure that the documents are done the right way. This can include getting a neutral law firm involved, or even videotaping the will or trust execution to show that the person really did intend what the document says.
These lawsuits are never fun for anyone, no matter how much is involved, so the more care that can be taken to prevent them, the better.
Update —MSNBC recently posted a new court filing by Huguette Clark’s family members, which included an earlier will dated only six weeks before the April 2005 will. This prior will left $5 million to Clark’s nurse, Hadassah Peri, and the rest to her family members. Interestingly, Wally Bock prepared and supervised this prior will, which is as different from the newer will as night and day.
Why the sudden change of heart over the course of six weeks? That’s what Clark’s family members are asking. This certainly makes their undue influence case that much stronger, and deepens the mysteries that will surely be explored through the litigation. This also calls into serious question whether Clark did indeed wish to create an art foundation, managed by Bock, Kamsler and an additional attorney, as spelled out in her most recent will.
Certainly people can and do change their final intentions, even in a short time frame, but the circumstances surrounding the two wills is very interesting, to say the least.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.