What can happen if an individual has no close family members or reliable advisers and does no estate planning? This was Huguette Clark’s predicament in her final years. Huguette was the daughter of copper baron and United States Senator William Andrews (W.A.) Clark. Empty Mansions, a historical biography by Paul Clark Newell, Jr. and Bill Dedman, chronicles their lives and the intrigue surrounding Huguette’s gifts of the family’s fortune.

From a historical perspective Empty Mansions is fascinating. The book begins with W.A. Clark’s history. Like Henry Clay Frick, W.A. had humble beginnings in Western Pennsylvania, shrewd competitive instincts and a lot of luck. But unlike his Glided Age contemporaries, W.A. did not spend the latter part of his life giving away his money. When he died on March 2, 1925, the estimated value of his estate was between $100 million and $250 million, or approximately $3.4 billion in 2014. By comparison, only Bill Gates’s and Warren Buffet’s fortunes today exceed W.A.’s wealth eighty-nine years ago.

Huguette’s life, though more private, was also historical. In 1911, Huguette attended the coronation of George V, and in 1912, was set to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the second voyage of R.M.S. Titanic. In August 1914, Huguette and her family escaped France ahead of the German invasion. She was an artist, and acquired several significant works of art: three Renoirs, two Monets, two Singer Sargents, a Manet, and a Degas. Huguette also purchased “La Purcelle”, a Stradivari violin built in 1709 and thought to be the finest privately owned violin in the world.

From an estate planning perspective, Empty Mansions is bewildering. Although she had three New York Fifth Avenue apartments and estates in Connecticut and California, she died just shy of her 105th birthday in a Manhattan hospital room where she lived for the last twenty years of her life. During this period, she did not have a power of attorney or a will, and she gave away millions of dollars. A three year investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office uncovered nothing but “relentless generosity.” The fact that the district attorney did not find financial abuse is not comforting. Those closest to Huguette during her final years acted in their self-interest, and each in their own way, breached the one thing she found very difficult to give – trust. Her care giver thought nothing of receiving several homes and over $31 million dollars. Physicians and hospital officials made fun of Huguette but attempted to cajole a large charitable gift annuity from her. Her attorney solicited a large personal gift but failed to file gift tax returns, and Huguette died owing $82 million in gift taxes. The attorney’s ineptness also led to claims of undue influence and a will contest that pitted Huguette’s distant relatives against institutional beneficiaries including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.

Most people will never know anyone with Huguette’s wealth. Still, her story highlights the need for active estate planning. As estate and trust attorneys, we strive to create comprehensive estate plans that match our clients’ goals and protect them from those who do not share their best interests. With patience, diligence and dedication, we help our clients plan a legacy that reflects their life story.