Huguette Clark was nearly 105 years old when she died in May 2011. Heiress to a copper mining fortune, she lived an extraordinarily reclusive life. The last time she was even photographed was in 1930. Although she owned several opulent properties, she chose to spend the last two decades of her life in seclusion at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center, even when she was in good health. While she lived at the hospital, her close companions were her nurse; her attorney, Wallace Bock; and her accountant, Irving Kamsler.
Clark, who had no children, left behind an estate valued at $400 million. She also left behind two Wills, executed within six weeks of each other in 2005. The first Will, which you can read here, leaves $5 million to her nurse and the remainder of her estate to her extended family members.
The second Will, which you can read here, is longer and more complicated. It expressly disinherits her entire family, leaving $500,000 each to her attorney and her accountant, among several other bequests. It also leaves an estimated $34 million to her nurse. In addition, the Will creates a charitable organization, known as the Bellosguardo Foundation, to establish an art museum in her Santa Barbara, California mansion. Bock, Clark’s attorney, and Kamsler, her accountant, were named as directors of the foundation.
After her death, Bock and Kamsler, also her executors, filed the second Will in New York probate court and turned the first Will over to Clark’s family. The family has filed suit challenging the validity of the second Will. They allege, among other things, undue influence on the part of Clark’s attorney and accountant.
Bock and Kamsler were involved in the preparation of both Wills, and they each stand to benefit significantly under the second Will. Under New York law, their confidential relationship with Clark means that they will have the burden of disproving undue influence. In short, this will be a long, drawn-out and expensive battle for all involved.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the litigation, Bock and Kamsler’s handling of Huguette Clark’s Will serves as a reminder of an important ethics fundamental. No matter how friendly you become with your clients, and no matter how innocent and well intentioned you and your clients may be, there are some lines that should not be blurred.
If a client expresses an interest in making you a beneficiary of his or her estate, make sure your law firm does not draft the plan.
Following this basic rule can go a long way toward saving you – not to mention your client’s family — the untold time, expense, and anguish that accompany a claim of undue influence.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M. (Tax)
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555