John Seward Johnson | Disinheritance & Incapacity
The name John Seward Johnson probably means very little to you, but you’ve certainly know the company that Johnson’s father, Robert Wood Johnson, co-founded. That’s right – Johnson & Johnson, the maker of baby products we’ve all used for generations.
By the time Johnson died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 87, he left an estate of more than $400 million. Unfortunately for his heirs, he also left behind a complicated estate battle that took years and millions of dollars to sort out, mostly because his six children from two marriages alleged that Johnson was not mentally competent when he left his fortune to his third wife, Barbara Piasecka, a chambermaid, 42 years his junior, whom he married in 1971 with none of his children in attendance.
The contested will stems from a decision Johnson made in the last year of his life. He changed his will at the age of 87, leaving everything to Piasecka.
When millions of dollars are on the line, the stakes are high, and families pull out all the stops to get what they believe is warranted. In the Johnson case, or should I say, cases – because there were at least three separate lawsuits filed – lawyers and their clients for the disinherited family members, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce witnesses willing to corroborate their version of the facts. In one case, an employee of Mr. Johnson was paid $160,000 ostensibly for “caretaker work” but which was essentially a way to get him to testify as a witness.
Indeed, beyond the multiple lawsuits the heirs fought over, the cases also produced legal complaints against their lawyers. One lawyer for Piasecka, for example, was brought before the Disciplinary Committee of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey State Supreme Court for allegedly bribing witnesses to testify on behalf of Piasecka. According to the complaint, the attorney “perpetrated this scheme by paying extraordinary sums of money to some witnesses who became beholden to them and by threatening and intimidating others who did not.”
In the end, everyone made out fine in these cases. The executor of the estate earned $8 million in fees, plus an annual trustee fee of $900,000. The attorneys on all sides earned millions in fees. And Barbara Piasecka Johnson settled for $200 million, which was divided among the children and ex-wives, leaving the J&J widow with a fortune of $300 million that grew to more than $2 billion by the time she died in 2013.
So was John Seward Johnson mentally impaired when he changed his will and left everything to his third wife? That’s still a good question.