Photo Credit: Sam Beebe
When billionaire Douglas Tompkins, the co-founder of two major brands, North Face and Espirit, died in a kayak accident in Chile in December 2015, he left everything in his estate to his second wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, as well as to foundations the couple created to preserve land in Chile and Argentina. His two daughters, including Summer Tompkins Walker, and his five grandchildren who live in the Bay Area, were all disinherited. This is yet another case of the widowed stepmother getting almost everything.
As we've seen over and over, in instances of blended families, especially when wealthy individuals re-marry and the father and stepmother become estranged from children of earlier marriages, inheritance problems invariably happen.
As you might expect when millions of dollars are at stake, Douglas Tompkins' decision to leave nothing to the children of his first marriage did not sit well with his daughter, Summer. According to her, Tompkins was "completely self-absorbed" and "a narcissist," and the two did not get along. "We are all very hardworking, productive people not looking for a handout, and he clearly had no trust of us and no respect," Summer Tompkins Walker said to the San Francisco Chronicle, "so I take (his will) at face value. It's definitely an insult. But he is dead, rotting in the ground as we speak."
Instead of accepting the decision at face value, however, Walker filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles stating that she was entitled to some percentage of her father's estate under the laws of Chile, a country where he was a permanent resident. Her attorneys argued that California Law, where Douglas Tompkins established a trust, did not apply.
In September 2017, a California Court disagreed, and rejected the lawsuit with the judge stating that it "largely presents irrelevant arguments...to the (California) law governing the trust."
Not to be deterred, her attorneys filed a new notice of appeal in Los Angeles and sued her father's estate in Chile as well. Last week, the Second District Court of Appeal in LA rejected that bid to overturn a probate court decision. In their opinion, the three-member panel wrote,
"We are hard-pressed to imagine a reason that, as a matter of public policy, Chile would be concerned about Summer's inheritance or lack thereof, as she is neither a citizen or a resident of Chile."
Whether she will appeal that decision or try a different tack remains to be seen.
What we can say is that the strategy of mounting a trust challenge on the basis that laws of another country should prevail, is an uphill battle. As an attorney who has worked in this area for decades, I can definitively state that wills and trusts can certainly be challenged, but basing a challenge on the laws of another country is a strategy with a historically low probability of success.
With many millions at stake, we can assume that this is not the last we will have heard of the Douglas Tompkins case, but presumably this time her attorneys will change course. In the meantime, stay tuned.
Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my book, The Wolf at the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.