Family members of copper heiress Huguette Clark are battling over the fortune she left behind when she died in 2011.
By Bill Dedman
Investigative Reporter, NBC News
NEW YORK — Settlement negotiations have broken down in the battle for the $300 million estate of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, according to several of the 60 attorneys involved.
A jury trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m. in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan.
In other news in the case: Huguette Clark's personal physician, internist Dr. Henry Singman, told the court he is renouncing the $100,000 that he was left in his patient's last will and testament. He is giving up that money, his attorney told the court, so he can freely testify for the will. New York law limits testimony by beneficiaries. Singman told the court he knew nothing of the will until after Clark died.
The doctor and his family received another $951,808 in gifts over 20 years while Clark lived; Singman faces a court action by the estate's temporary administrator to force payback of those gifts.
Attorneys for Clark's relatives have not been able to agree on a settlement with the beneficiaries named in the will: a charitable foundation, a hospital, Clark's multimillionaire private-duty registered nurse, a goddaughter, attorney, accountant, doctor and several employees. Her will stated emphatically that none of her money should go to her relatives, who are descended from her father's first marriage. The relatives challenged the will, claiming it was the product of fraud, that Clark was incompetent, and that the signing ceremony was faulty.
"Negotiations are now in non-existence," one attorney said. Another described them as "not active." And a third said, "The settlement binder went back on the shelf."
A trial could last three to six weeks.
Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") Marcelle Clark was the youngest daughter of former U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925), one of the copper kings of Montana and one of the richest men of the Gilded Age, a railroad builder and founder of Las Vegas. Born in Paris in 1906, Huguette was a shy painter and doll collector who spent her last 20 years living in simple hospital rooms. She attracted the attention of NBC News in 2009 because her fabulous homes in Connecticut, California and New York sat unoccupied but carefully maintained.
NBC's archive of Clark stories, photos and videos is at http://nbcnews.com/clark/.
After she died at 104 in May 2011, Clark's will was challenged by 19 of her relatives, who contend that she was mentally ill and incompetent, the victim of fraud by her nurse, attorney and accountant. These relatives are descendants from Clark's father's first marriage, the closest to her being half grandnieces and grandnephews. Her will says, "I intentionally make no provision ... for any members of my family ... having had minimal contacts with them over the years."
Related: Meet Huguette Clark's 'little people': A collector of dolls and kindness
Fourteen of the 19 said in legal papers that they never met their reclusive aunt. The last time any of them recalled speaking with her in person was in 1957, although some said hello when their parents were on the phone with Huguette on holidays. If a jury throws out the will, they will inherit all her estate, valued conservatively at $307 million, or about $175 million after taxes and fees. She had no children and no survivors on her mother's side. A 20th Clark relative was found dead of exposure in December under a Wyoming railroad trestle. His heirs will receive his share of any winnings.
Charities are the largest beneficiaries of Clark's will as written, receiving 85 percent of the payout. A Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, at her summer estate in Santa Barbara, Calif., would receive real estate, nearly all of Clark's paintings, and cash – together worth $124 million, or 71 percent of the estate. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., would receive a Monet painting from the "Water Lilies" series, appraised at $25 million, or 14 percent.
Next in the will are her registered nurse, Hadassah Peri, receiving $15.3 million after taxes, including the doll collection worth $1.7 million; goddaughter Wanda Styka (pronounced STEE-kuh), $7.9 million; Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, $1 million; attorney Wallace "Wally" Bock, $500,000; personal assistant Christopher Sattler, $370,000; accountant Irving Kamsler, $370,000; property managers John C. Douglas III in California, $163,000, and Tony Ruggiero in Connecticut, $12,000; and the doctor, Singman, who has given up his gift. (Document: Read Huguette Clark's will here.)
Clark had signed a will just six weeks earlier, making only one bequest: $5 million to nurse Peri. The rest of the money under that will would have gone by default to her relatives, who were not named. The attorney and accountant say that Clark signed the first will because she wanted to fulfill a promise to give another $5 million to Peri, and that they agreed with Clark that she would soon finish a list of beneficiaries, which was made official in the second will.
The attorney and accountant are also expected to renounce their bequests so they can testify freely. Although a criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney officially remains open, no one has been charged. Police found that the paper trail supported the attorney and accountant's account that Clark authorized expenses and gifts, writing checks in her own steady hand, the same handwriting that appears on the will.
Bill Dedman is the co-author of the new book "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." The co-author is Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Huguette Clark's cousin, who is not involved in the legal contest.
More on Huguette Clark’s life and death:
First published September 10 2013, 1:45 AM