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Exploitation of France's richest woman? Her daughter says yes, but she says no!

Liliane Bettencourt is considered to be France's richest woman.  She inherited the controlling share of L'Oreal (if you're a man and don't know what L'Oreal is, ask your wife or girlfriend).  She presently owns about 28% of the cosmetics company and has an estimated fortune worth 23 billion dollars (U.S.).  Yet her only daughter, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a lawsuit alleging that her 86-year-old mother is incompetent and is being taken advantage of by an artist and photographer described as a "dandy" and a "charmer" according to this article in The Australian.

Meyers' lawyer charges that Francois-Marie Banier has exploited Bettencourt to the tune of more 1.3 billion dollars in "gifts".  Bettencourt strongly disagrees.  She says she was examined by a psychiatrist a couple days before Christmas and proved she was competent.  She calls Banier a long-time friend of 20 years, both to her and to her late husband.  While she admits giving him valuable gifts, including a Picasso and a Matisse, the value is small compared to her total net worth.

Sadly, Bettencourt says she does not see her daughter any longer, and she doesn't want to see her again.  Despite the obvious bitterness, Bettencourt still plans to leave her valuable stock in L'Oreal to her daughter when she dies. 

An interesting footnote to this drama:  Bettencourt is one of the many victims of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme (described in this post).  Luckily, her losses were only a fraction of her overall fortune -- about $1.4 billion.  Of course, if her daughter is to be believed, the rest of her fortune is in jeopardy because of the artist Banier.   

It's unusual that this case would surface in this manner.  Most exploitation cases involve family members and their elderly loved one suing someone together.  When gifts are challenged, those fights often come after the gift giver has died or clearly is no longer competent (due to dementia or Alzheimer's disease most commonly).  When the competence of a senior citizen is in question, at least in this country, most family members turn to probate court to file for guardianship and/or conservatorship (see, for example, the Peter Falk post).  It doesn't appear that Meyers did so in this case.

If Bettencourt truly is as competent as she says she is, then not only will her daughter's case fail, but it may provoke her mother to disinherit her entirely!  Francoise better be careful; hopefully she has good probate litigation attorneys advising her.  A good attorney will tell when to sue and when not to; there are always costs -- emotional and financial -- to starting a legal challenge of this nature.  No one should ever start a family feud in court without speaking with an experienced lawyer first.

Posted by:  Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law.  You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.

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