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The costliest will contest case

All will contests or other disputed probate cases, in Michigan, other states -- or even other countries -- are difficult, emotional and often expensive for everyone involved.  But sometimes cases reach a whole new level that makes even seasoned probate litigators like me gasp in disbelief.  The Estate of Wilson C. Lucom has to be at the top of that list.

Lucom, an American who moved to Panama, lived a long and colorful life, including working as an aide to the secretary of state for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His second wife left him a great deal of wealth when she died in 1981 and Lucom used his wealth to buy 7,000 of prime oceanfront property in Panama that an appraiser valued at more than $140 million. 

Lucom surprised his third wife, Hilda Lucom (who had previously been married to the son of a former Panama president) by leaving the large bulk of his estate -- including the prime real estate -- to benefit the staggering number of poor and starving children in Panama.  Half of the country's children under five are in danger of malnutrition and there is a 40% poverty rate.

Sadly, not a dime of Lucom's money has been used to benefit these children because of a will contest launched by Hilda Lucom and her adult children.  The disputed will left Hilda  $20,000 per month for life, and the right to live in Lucom's home, along with cash bequests to Hilda's already-wealthy adult children.  This apparently was not enough for Hilda's family. 

Lucom died two and half years ago at the age of 88, without any children of his own.  Hilda's family attorneys contend Lucom's will didn't express his wishes but instead was the product of fraud by his lawyer -- Florida attorney Richard Lehman.  Lehman was the estate executor, and used a power of attorney given to him by Lucom to create a charitable trust as called for by the will, to manage the money from the estate to benefit the needy Panamanian children.

Lehman not only fights to uphold Lucom's will, but to keep himself out of jail.  He says that he has been subject to no less than 13 false criminal charges in one year alone, filed by Hilda's family lawyers, and that both he and his attorney in Panama were listed as dangerous "Red Notice" criminals by corrupt Panamanian police officials who were influenced by the well-connected family.  This Notice was sent out (illegally, according to Lehman) through Interpol to 186 countries and led to Lehman's attorney being arrested. 

Even worse, an activist for children's rights in Panama who led a march to the Panamanian Supreme Court to support Lucom's will was shot and nearly killed one week after the protest.  Lehman says there is no doubt it was because of the will litigation, and he openly suspects Hilda's family.  Lucom kids

At this point, Lehman appears to be winning his fight, but the cost has been enormous.  Both the probate court and first appellate court have upheld the will and his role as executor.  Now the case rests with the Panama Supreme Court. 

A few weeks ago, Lehman established a new charitable foundation to be managed by six charities in Panama, which will receive the Lucom estate property if and when Lehman wins the case in the Supreme Court.  No decision has been made yet, but Lehman expects it soon.

And the cost of this fighting?  The lives of hundreds of Panamanian children.  Lehman, points to UNICEF standards and says that another child dies of malnutrition in Panama every 3 days .  He contends each of these children could have been saved if Lucom's wishes had been honored from the onset.

You can read Lehman's detailed description of what has transpired.  Also, the New York times has an interesting article about the case

Sadly, there may not yet be a light at the end of the tunnel.  While the Supreme Court of Panama may rule in favor of the will as Lehman expects, Lehman also points out that the disputed land has been falsely sold by unknown parties, which may prevent the estate from selling it to create cash for the charities even after the will contest case ends.  At this point, no one knows when -- or if -- Lucom's wishes will finally benefit those who need it most.

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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