Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, known to her friends as Kekau, is true Hawaiian royalty. Now, a bitter court battle rages over the questions of whether she is mentally capable of managing her vast fortune and whether she is the victim of physical abuse and financial exploitation.
Princess Kawananakoa, age 92, is a direct descendant to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii. When the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, it ended the reign of Queen Lili’uokalani, Kawananakoa's great-grand aunt. As the closest living relative, Kawananakoa is considered to be the heir apparent who would have assumed the throne if the monarchy had been restored.
Kawananakoa was also the beneficiary of a large fortune, thanks to her great-grandfather, James Campbell. Campbell, a 19th-century sugar cane industrialist who made his fortune in Hawaii, died in 1900 with an estate worth $3 million at the time. The Campbell Estate has grown since then, topping out over $2 billion in 2007 when the Estate was converted into corporate holdings. Kawananakoa inherited $250 million, mostly in the form of stock in the James Campbell Corporation. Today, her trust is estimated to be worth $200 million.
This trust fund is at the heart of the dispute, which pits her once-trusted attorney against her long-time domestic partner. The attorney, James Wright, petitioned the probate court to remove Kawananakoa from controlling her trust. His petition was initially granted by the probate court judge, but now is challenged in court. Wright alleged that Kawananakoa suffered an acute stroke leaving her unable to manage her health, self-care, or financial matters. Wright based his filing on the determination of two physicians.
Wright alleges that Worth is the one guilty of abuse. He says he acted to protect Kawananakoa from "opportunists and interlopers." Worth, age 63, has reportedly been Kawananakoa's partner for nearly two decades. Wright voiced a concern that he believes Worth has exercised undue influence over Kawananakoa. He wants to make sure she is evaluated by independent medical experts.
To complicate matters, Wright submitted photographs to the state attorney general, asking for an investigation due to significant bruising that Kawananakoa suffered. Wright claims that when he asked Kawananakoa about the bruises, she told him that Worth is responsible but asked him not to tell the police. Worth denies the allegations and questions why these photographs, which are around one year old, were not submitted sooner if there had been a legitimate concern of abuse.
Hawaii News Now reports that allegations in court records claim that Worth asked Kawananakoa to give her Campbell Corporation stock worth about $26 million, but Kawananakoa denied the request. Worth receives an annual income from Kawananakoa's Trust of about $700,000. Worth is also a beneficiary of Kawananakoa's trust, which also leaves significant money to various charities. Worth also is Kawananakoa's appointed agent under a healthcare power of attorney.
Kawananakoa is now championed by a former Hawaii attorney general, who is trying to help Kawananakoa recover control over her life and her assets. He says the letter she wrote was genuine.
While certainly unusual in terms of the royal pedigree and dollars involved, the dispute over whether Kawananakoa is competent or the victim of abuse is far from uncommon. Many families are torn apart by concerns whether someone is taking advantage of an elderly loved one whose mental status is in question. These often result in court proceedings about whom should act as trustee, or as guardian or conservator to make decisions for the elder. Determining when someone has crossed the line from being capable of making his or her own decisions to being incompetent is often difficult, particularly when there are concerns of abuse and exploitation.
The sad reality is that disputes likes this happen every day in every state, to families of millionaires down to seniors who have nothing beyond their social security. And they are often just as intense and bitter as the feud over Princess Kawananakoa. A few public examples include Donald Sterling, Mickey Rooney, Casey Kasem, B.B. King and Tom Benson.
Often the dispute centers on medical evaluations by one or more qualified physicians experienced evaluating the mental capacities of seniors. Certainly in the dispute over Kawananakoa, the findings of medical experts will be critical to the outcome. A panel of three experts was reportedly appointed to conduct the evaluations.
If Kawananakoa is evaluated and found to be competent, then her rights to act as trustee, and to make her own medical and other decisions, will likely be restored. If not, then the trust that she put in place in the past, naming her longtime attorney as trustee would likely be upheld - although even then the court could replace the attorney with another trustee if he is if found to be unsuitable or if Kawananakoa's current preference is honored. Similarly, Worth, as her appointed health care agent, would be permitted to make her medical decisions, unless Worth was found to be unsuitable, such as if the allegations of physical abuse were found to be accurate.
If you find your family in the midst of similar concerns or allegations, it is important to seek qualified legal help from an attorney experienced in handling disputes of this nature. From there, obtaining a proper evaluation by an experienced physician with expertise treating and evaluating seniors is critical. Having the right team of professionals can make all the difference.
Ultimately, judges who hear these disputes want to make sure that the senior who is alleged to be incompetent is safe and protected. They certainly will rely on medical experts in deciding when someone can safely continue to make his or her own decisions, both for physical and financial well-being.
Hopefully for Princess Kawananakoa, the judge hearing her case can make the right call quickly, before the dispute turns even uglier. Once the evaluations are complete, the court can decide what is in her best interests and whether she can resume control over her finances and her life.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and attorneys with the Michigan law firm, Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at [email protected]