Huguette Clark is a 104-year mysterious and reclusive New York multi-millionaire whose situation bears a striking resemblance to that of the late Brooke Astor. Like with Astor, Clark is now the subject of a guardianship proceeding in New York brought by relatives who fear that she has been financially exploited. Clark's fortune is estimated to be worth half a billion dollars.
Clark is the daughter, and only surviving child, of William Andrews Clark, who died in 1925 and was described as the first or second richest American at that time. He built his wealth through copper mining and served as a senator of Montana. Many believed his daughter had died long ago. Indeed, she hadn't been seen in the Fifth Avenue apartment that she lived in (and still owns) in 22 years.
An Investigative Reporter for MSNBC.com recently published a lengthy two-part article about Clark and how she has resided alone, in an ordinary New York hospital room, for those 22 years, while her attorney, Wallace Bock, and accountant, Irving Kamsler, managed her finances and reportedly barred her distant relatives (including half-nieces and half-nephews) from visiting.
But more troubling, MSNBC.com reported that the Manhattan district attorney is investigating how the pair has handled Clark's finances, including selling a valuable Renoir painting and a Stradivarius violin. This same pair has also received significant assets from another elderly client, after that man revised his will six times. And the accountant, Kamsler, is a convicted felon who pled guilty to an online predatory sex offense against minors in 2008.
Just recently, because of the concerns uncovered by the MSNBC.com report, Clark's relatives filed for guardianship. You can read the guardianship petition here.
In the court filing, the relatives accuse Bock and Kamsler of abusing Clark's trust, taking advantage of her mental limitations, mismanagement and dishonesty. For example, they claim Bock solicited a $1.5 million check from Clark to help his daughter (and others) and caused more than two million dollars in tax liens to be filed against Clark's properties.
MSNBC.com reported in a follow-up story that a former paralegal for Bock's law firm described that Bock and Kamsler repeatedly tried to convince Clark to sign a new will in the early 2000s, but were unsuccessful at that time.
You can read MSNBC.com's complete coverage of this story here.
[9/10/10 update -- here is attorney Wallace Bock's detailed Affidavit which he filed to refute all of the accusations against him.]
At this point, there is little more than troubling allegations. It may be a long time until the full truth behind this story is revealed. Certainly, there is enough cause for alarm to justify the Clark relatives' efforts to protect her through a guardianship proceeding. When elderly relatives may be victim of financial exploitation, using such a court proceeding is often the only feasible way to protect them.
That is exactly how the Brooke Astor case began. Her grandson filed a guardianship petition to protect Astor from her son. Eventually, that same son and Astor's attorney were both convicted of 14 felony counts related to financial exploitation of Astor, which earned them each a jail sentence of 1 to 3 years (subject to appeal, of course). You can read about the Brooke Astor case here.
Will Clark's tale end up the same way? Only time will tell.
If you have any concerns of an elderly or vulnerable loved one being subject to financial exploitation -- be it from a family member, professional, caregiver, "significant other", or anyone else -- do not hesitate to speak with an experienced guardianship attorney and see if a court action is appropriate to protect your loved one.
Especially in this economy, unsavory people target seniors of all asset levels as perceived "easy marks". The best prevention is for family members and friends to be proactive and protective, before it's too late.
Are you concerned that exploitation may occur in your family? Here are the warning signs of exploitation, as issued by The National Center on Elder Abuse.
Posted by: Andrew W. Mayoras and Danielle B. Mayoras, co-authors of Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founders 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. Andrew and Danielle are husband and wife attorneys, professional speakers and consultants across the country. Follow us on Facebook and Google+.