Huguette Clark Heirs Reach Deal to Divvy Up Her $300 M. Estate

Ms. Clark's, shown here as a tow-headed child with her sister, mother and father. From the book Empty Mansions.

Ms. Clark, shown here as a tow-headed child with her father, sister and mother, circa 1912. From the book Empty Mansions.

The distant relatives of reclusive, doll-loving heiress Huguette Clark may not have seen their great-great aunt for more than a half-century (and most never met her at all), but they will be amply rewarded for their solicitousness after her death, netting $34.5 million in a settlement reached on the eve of a jury trial over her $300 million estate.

The numerous parties in the battle over the copper heiress’s massive fortune have negotiated a deal, NBC News’s Bill Dedman reported this afternoon, obviating the need for a lengthy jury trial—juror selection had been scheduled to have started last Tuesday, September 17, but was delayed as the tentative deal took shape.

The settlement differs most notably from Ms. Clark’s will, signed when she was 98, by giving her half-grand and half-great-grandnieces and nephews $34.5 million—a sum that will not be reduced by taxes or legal fees, which are to be paid by the estate. It also cuts out Ms. Clark’s longtime nurse Hadassah Peri, to whom Ms. Clark willed some $30 million and her beloved $1.7 million doll collection.

Under the terms of the deal, the Bellosguardo Foundation, the arts non-profit that Ms. Clark created in her will, is still slated to get the bulk of Ms. Clark’s bounty—her $85 million dollar Santa Barbara estate, her doll collection and $4.5 million in cash. However, it’s unclear if the IRS will be willing to overlook tens of millions of dollars that Ms. Clark owed in gift taxes at the time of her death. If not, the foundation may need to sell the estate.

When she died at age 104 in 2011, Ms. Clark, the youngest daughter of copper king, railroad baron and U.S. Senator W.A. Clark, did not have any direct heirs, but she did leave behind a seemingly straightforward will. Besides the Bellosguardo Foundation and the Corcoran Gallery, the main beneficiaries were the surrogate friends and family with whom she’d spent the last 20 years of her life: her nurse Ms. Peri, her doctors, her lawyer, her accountant, her assistant and a goddaughter with whom she corresponded regularly.

Expressly excluded were the 21 distant relatives descended from her four much-older half-siblings (all five of W.A. Clark’s living children had received a roughly equivalent share of his fortune when he died). Ms. Clark cut them out of the will, writing, “I intentionally make no provision in this my last will and testament for any members of my family, whether on my paternal or maternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years.”

However, 19 of Ms. Clark’s 21 relatives challenged the document (the heirs of the 20th have since joined, following his death last year). To win at trial, the family would have had to prove that Ms. Clark was incompetent when she wrote the will—a task that may have seemed easy at the outset given Ms. Clark’s many oddities, among them her decision to the last 20 years of her life in a hospital room although she was perfectly healthy, leaving her many magnificent properties empty. But medical records and reams of documents unearthed by Mr. Dedman show Ms. Clark to have been a strange, but highly-competent woman to the end.

Nonetheless, the relatives prevailed in the settlement. “The Clark Family is extremely gratified by the settlement announced today. First, it honors our Aunt Huguette and her legacy,” the family said in a statement. “Second, it accomplishes our primary motivation for challenging the will: focusing attention on the issue of elder abuse.” It must be noted that despite the family’s claims, the D.A.  never brought charges against any of Ms. Clark’s employees or caregivers.

Ms. Peri, who was the largest beneficiary of the will, lost not only her inheritance, but will also have to return $5 million in gifts that she received from Ms. Clark when she was alive—a small percentage of the $31 million that she was given on top of her salary, but a sizable sum nonetheless. As Mr. Dedman reports, citing concerns of undue influence, the Attorney General’s office took the position that the gifts to a caretaker were excessive. The settlement will stop the office from recovering any more and Ms. Peri’s attorney Harvey Corn told NBC News that, “the Peri family is very happy to contribute to the settlement of the litigations involving Madame Clark in the hope that it will allow Madame Clark to retain whatever privacy that she has left.”

Surrogate Judge Nora S. Anderson has accepted the deal and will formally approve it at a later hearing, but Mr. Dedman notes that the deal may hit a snag because the Bellosguardo Foundation, which was not given the right to negotiate the settlement because it was only created as a condition of the will, is appealing the decision.