NEW YORK — The longtime private registered nurse for heiress Huguette Clark, named to receive more than $30 million in her last will and testament, will be fighting in court on Friday to keep Clark's relatives from poking into the way Clark's money was spent.
The nurse, Hadassah Peri, an immigrant from the Philippines, already owns a $200,000 Bentley Arnage luxury sedan and five houses. Money for four of those houses was given to her through the years by Clark, whom she joined almost 20 years ago when assigned by a home care agency.
The total amount of money already given to Peri was about $26 million, according to court documents, even before the amounts left in the will. That's a far higher figure than previously disclosed. The reclusive Clark, heir to a share of one of America's largest mining fortunes from the 19th century, lived out her last decades in modest hospital rooms in New York City before dying in May at age 104.
Nineteen of Clark's relatives have asked the court to make them a party to the first stage of the legal battle, the accounting for Clark's $400 million fortune. It's presumed that this step will lead to the family contesting Clark's last will, which leaves nothing to family. The family has filed in court a previous will, signed just six weeks before the last one. That earlier document left nearly everything to the family, and only $5 million to the nurse.
Read the related story: Tax fraud alleged in estate of heiress; accountant resigns.
On Friday the parties will argue in front of the judge in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan, Surrogate Kristin Booth Glen.
Also on the judge's plate: whether or not Clark's longtime attorney should remain as an executor of her estate. That issue took the spotlight this week, as Clark's accountant resigned as an executor, just before a public official investigating Clark's finances accused the attorney and executive of fraud in handling Clark's taxes. The attorney and accountant, also the subject of an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, have said they handled Clark's finances appropriately and according to her wishes.
See the related story: Tax fraud alleged in estate of heiress Huguette Clark; accountant resigns.
Speaking for nurse Peri, attorney Harvey E. Corn argued in court documents on Dec. 7 that Clark gave the money, and her doll collection, to her out of "gratitude for Ms. Peri's devoted service." Corn says that "Ms. Peri saw or communicated with the Decedent almost every day" during her nearly 20 years of service. And he says that hospital records from the six months around the signing of the wills show that Clark was in good health, "conversant, cheerful, well read and engaged in taking care of her personal affairs." Corn argues that the family has no legal standing, and that their intervention will cause delay and wasting of the estate in additional legal fees.
The family attorney, John R. Morken, replied in court papers on Wednesday. He said family members were not so distant as they have been portrayed, and had shown concern for Clark while she was alive. Family members have said their contacts with Clark were abruptly cut off by her attorney around the same time the wills were written, in 2005, when she was 98 years old. Then, in 2010 after msnbc.com disclosed questions about the financial dealings of Clark's attorney and accountant, three family members asked a court to appoint a guardian for her. That request was denied without even a hearing in court.
"The litigation in this Estate is not just about the probate of a will," Morken argued. "Rather, it is about what transpired during the last twenty years of Huguette Clark's life. This inquiry requires an open airing of the facts. The Family Members should not be denied the opportunity to participate in same. They were denied that opportunity when their Guardianship Petition was dismissed in 2010, while Huguette was alive. They should not be denied that opportunity again." Several times in the document, Morken suggests that Peri enabled or cooperated with the attorney and accountant in getting Clark to sign a second will that benefitted them all.
Hadassah Peri has not spoken publicly about Clark, but a press agent issued a statement on her behalf in June after she was named in the will: "I saw Madame Clark virtually every day for the 20 years. I was her private duty nurse but also her close friend. I knew her as a kind and generous person, with whom I shared many wonderful moments and whom I loved very much. I am profoundly sad at her passing, awed at the generosity she has shown me and my family, and eternally grateful. Just as Madame Clark demonstrated kindness toward others in her actions, so, too, will I and my family devote a substantial portion of this bequest toward making the world a better place for all people."
The public official investigating Clark's finances, the New York County public administrator's office, has already said in court papers that it might seek to "claw back" into the estate some of the gifts given from Clark's accounts while she lived. The administrator said the powers of attorney that Clark signed over to her attorney and accountant did not include the authority to give gifts, including a $5 million check written to Peri in 2009, after Clark herself stopped writing checks on her account.
If that clawback effort is successful, and if the second will is thrown out, Peri could not only lose the large bequest but could also have to pay back some of what she now has. Morken calls that Peri's "day of reckoning."
See below the full documents from the nurse, the family, and the attorney and accountant.
Though she inherited one of the great mining fortunes of the 19th century, Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") Marcelle Clark lived quietly into the 21st century, secluded under fake names in a hospital room for more than two decades despite being in relatively good physical health. Intensely shy, she was almost entirely alone, aside from her private nurse, other helpers and occasional visits by her accountant. One of her former attorneys represented her for 20 years without meeting her face to face, instead talking to her through a closed door.
In the last year of her life, after her three empty mansions drew the attention of a reporter for msnbc.com in late 2009, she became a subject of public fascination, a trending topic of searches on Google and Yahoo, pictured on the cover of the New York tabloids, with fan pages on Facebook, a biography on Wikipedia, and her story read by tens of millions — though the last known photograph of her was made in 1930.
Huguette Clark was married only briefly and had no children. Her only full sister died at age 16 and had no children. Her mother had no other children. Under state law that leaves 21 "intestate distributees" — the relatives who would inherit her estate if she left no will or if the court chooses to uphold the earlier will instead of the later one. Nineteen of the 21 are in court now. Those 21 relatives are descended from three of the children from Sen. Clark's first marriage: 13 half-grandnieces and half-grandnephews (and their children), and eight half-great-grandnieces and half-great-grandnephews (and their children). Counting all the children of these relatives, there are about 50 living descendants of Clark's father.
Documents (PDF files)
Previous stories in the Huguette Clark mystery on msnbc.com:
Photo narrative, "The Clarks: An American story of wealth, scandal and mystery," Feb. 26, 2010.
Printable version of the photo narrative, Feb. 26, 2010.
Clark family notes and sources, Feb. 26, 2010.
Investigative report, part one, "At 104, the mysterious heiress Huguette Clark is alone now: Relatives are kept away. Only her accountant and attorney visit. Who protects HuguetteClark, with 3 empty homes and no heirs?" Aug. 19, 2010.
Investigative report, part two, "Who is watching Huguette Clark's millions? Reclusive heiress's assets are sold by two advisers, one an accountant with a felony conviction. Another elderly client signed over his property to the same accountant and attorney," Aug. 20, 2010.
"Criminal probe begins into the finances of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark: Manhattan DA's Elder Abuse Unit is on the case. The same unit prosecuted the Brooke Astor case — though Clark has about four times the wealth," Aug. 24, 2010.
"Report sparks welfare check on heiress Huguette Clark," Aug. 25, 2010.
"Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress, has signed a will, attorney says," Sept. 2, 2010.
"Attorney for 104-year-old heiress defends his handling of her finances," Sept. 7, 2010.
"Huguette Clark, the reclusive copper heiress, dies at 104," May 24, 2011.
"Family excluded from Huguette Clark burial," May 26, 2011.
"Heiress Huguette Clark's will leaves $1 million to advisers," June 22, 2011.
"The 1 percent of the 1 percent: How Huguette Clark's millions were spent," Nov. 19, 2011.