"Extreme wealth is a menace to happiness."
– Huguette Clark
Reclusive heiress Huguette Clark died May 24, 2011 at the age of 104. Her estate is estimated at $500 million. She has lived in a New York hospital for the last 22 years. No visitors or family have seen her. Her affairs are controlled by an attorney and an accountant.
Huguette had been living at a New York hospital under pseudonyms – the latest was Harriet Chase. She had a guarded room with full-time private nurses. Her hospital room number didn’t even exist – outside her room on the 3rd floor, a card with the fake room number "1B" and the name "Chase" was taped over the actual room number.
The Elder Abuse Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has been investigating Huguette’s lawyer Wallace Bock and accountant Irving Kamsler. The investigation began in 2010 when three relatives of Huguette sought to have an independent guardian appointed for her alleging mismanagement of her funds by Bock and Kamsler. Huguette hadn’t been seen since she left her 42-room Fifth Avenue apartment in an ambulance 22 years ago. The action for appointment of an independent guardian was unsuccessful. The court allowed Huguette’s finances to remain in the hands of Bock and Kamsler. Bill Dedman writes for MSNBC: "The case presented something of a Catch-22: The judge said the relatives were not able to provide first-hand information about Clark to prove their allegations against the attorney and accountant, but the relatives said they had been prevented for many years by the attorney and accountant from visiting Clark." But the DA’s office launched an investigation that is ongoing.
Is this another case like Brooke Astor? Her son and her attorney were convicted in 2009 of taking $10 million f rom her. Astor’s estate was valued at $131 million. Huguette’s estate is estimated at $500 million and includes three opulent homes: an estate on the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, CA, worth an estimated $100 million (she had not visited this home since the 1950s); a country house in New Canaan, CT, now on the market for $23 million (which she built but never spent a night in); and the largest apartment on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, actually 42 rooms on the 8th and 12th floors, valued at about $100 million. All three homes have been carefully maintained and staffed.
Huguette Clark was born in 1906 in Paris. She was the daughter of then 67-year-old U.S. Senator William A. Clark of Montana and his second wife, 28-year-old Anna Eugenia La Chapelle. William and Anna had another daughter, Louise, who died at the age of 17 from meningitis. Clark had 5 children with his first wife. The issue of these children are now parties of interest in Huguette’s estate, being her closest kin.
New York Post columnist Veren Dobnik writes of Huguette: "At 22, she married a poor bank clerk, but they parted ways after only nine months. Huguette Clark cited desertion by her husband. He claimed she failed to consummate the marriage, according to ‘The Clarks: An American Phenomenon.’"
In 2002 another mutual client of Bock and Kamsler died – Donald L. Wallace, Bock’s former law partner and Huguette’s former attorney. Wallace’s will (drafted by Bock) gave Bock and Kamsler $100,000 each, his Mercedes, and his New York apartment, not to mention the $368,000 in fees for settling Wallace’s $4 million estate. In New York, when a lawyer who drafted a will receives a bequest from that will, that fact automatically raises a suspicion of undue influence. The surrogate must determine if the bequest to the attorney was made voluntarily – a so-called Putnam inquiry. In Wallace’s estate, the surrogate determined that the bequests should be paid.
In September 2010 a spokesman for attorney Wallace Bock revealed that Huguette Clark did have a will which had been in existence for some time. Now we await the production of the will. Who will be the beneficiaries? And of course, we await the results of the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation.
The take away: it can happen to anyone. Who protects the elderly, not only from physical abuse but from financial abuse. Who protects an old person who has no children and whose distant relatives have been prevented from visiting him or her? Does our current legal structure suffice?
According to the American Psychological Association, over 2 million older Americans are victims of physical, psychological, or other forms of abuse and neglect every year. Further, for every case of elder abuse and neglect that is reported to authorities, experts believe there may be as many as five cases that have not been reported.