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Huguette Clark | An Heiress & Undue Influence

Huguette Clark Estate Litigation.jpgUnless you're from Santa Barbara, you may not know the name Huguette Clark. She was the reclusive heiress to a $300 million copper and railroad fortune amassed by her father, W.A. Clark, a former US Senator from Montana who also held the distinction of being the founder of the city of Las Vegas. When Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104, she created by will the Bellosguardo Foundation, whose purpose was to foster the arts by displaying her art collection at her massive $85 million, 23 ½ acre summer home in Santa Barbara.

Clark's first Will was written when she was 98, and in that document, she left her estate to distant relatives and her private nurse. 42 days later, however, she signed a second Will that disinherited her family members and left her estate to other beneficiaries, including several prominent non-profits. When she died six years later, Clark's relatives sued her estate, arguing that at her advanced age she did not have sufficient capacity to understand what she was doing. If she had been completely competent, they said, she would have videotaped her signing of the Will in front of her attorneys and doctors, and her medical professionals would have attested to her mental state.

Incidentally, the scenario Clark's relatives suggested of videotaping a wealthy person's competence in front of a panel of doctors and lawyers was brilliantly described in John Grisham's novel, The Testament -- a book I highly recommend.

Because Clark failed to take such precautions, a four-year legal battle ensued, which was eventually settled with a $34.5 million payment to Clark's relatives, the ones who would otherwise have gotten nothing.

Clark's nurse, however, lost her battle to keep a $30 million bequest, and was ultimately required to pay back $5 million of the $31 million she had already received from Clark during her lifetime. Given that she was the primary caregiver, and that the gift amounts were excessive, the court took the position that she had exerted undue influence to receive such enormous sums from her employer.

Perhaps the big winner in this case was the City and residents of Santa Barbara. In October of 2018, the Bellosguardo Foundation opened her Santa Barbara oceanfront estate with a gala event. It was, in their words, "an elegant Gatsbyesque soiree, showcasing both the estate's history and its potential. Santa Barbara has indeed been blessed with the gift of this historic, twenty-four acre, oceanfront property."

However, if you are in Santa Barbara and want to visit Clark's estate, you will need to check the foundation's website and sign up for a future special event. A board of directors was established, whose mission is to restore and preserve the property, but deferred maintenance and a lack of cash reserves may limit the public's access. So far, the house has been open for tours twice in the past three months.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my book, The Wolf at the Door. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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