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Family of heiress Huguette Clark claims fraud by nurse, attorney, accountant

W.A. Clark Memorial Library

Huguette Clark as a child, with one of her dolls. Her family is battling her nurse for the lion's share of her $400 million fortune.

NEW YORK — The relatives of copper mining heiress Huguette Clark have gone to court to challenge her last will and testament, claiming fraud by her attorney, accountant and nurse.

The longtime private registered nurse, Hadassah Peri, already received about $26 million from Clark while she lived, according to court documents, and is left more than $30 million more in Clark's last will. The attorney and accountant were left $500,000 each.

A previous will, signed just six weeks earlier, left $5 million to the nurse, and all the rest to Clark's family. The family was cut out of the second will entirely. Despite years of pleading from attorney after attorney, Clark had reached age 98 without directing who should inherit one of America's great fortunes from the Gilded Age, estimated to be at least $400 million.

Her nurse, an immigrant from the Philippines, had been assigned to Clark by a home care agency almost 20 years ago. Now she owns a $200,000 Bentley Arnage luxury sedan and five houses. Money for four of those houses was given to her through the years by Clark, who died last May at age 104.

The reclusive Clark has been the focus of a series of a series of reports on msnbc.com about her vacant properties and the management of her fortune. She lived out her last decades in modest hospital rooms in New York City, leaving empty a $100 million home on the Pacific coast in Santa Barbara, Calif., a $20 million country estate in New Canaan, Conn., and three apartments with a total of 42 rooms at 907 Fifth Avenue in New York City, soon to go on the market at about $75 million.

Nineteen of Clark's relatives filed an objection to the second will this week in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan.

Clark "was not competent to make a Will," argues the family attorney, John R. Morken, "in that she did not know the nature, extent or value of her assets, was not of sound mind or memory and was not mentally capable of making a Will." He goes on to argue that the will "was not freely and voluntarily made," that it was "procured by the undue influence of [attorney] Wallace Bock, [accountant] Irving Kamsler, Hadassah Peri, and/or by other persons acting in concert," and that the same people obtained the will by fraud.

Document: Read the family's objections to the will (PDF file).

A key issue in the case will be the close timing of the two wills, just six weeks apart. If Clark was not competent to sign a will in March 2005, then how was she competent to sign a will in April 2005? Of course, from the family's perspective, it doesn't matter if the judge throws out both wills. In that case, if she dies without a valid will, the family inherits everything under state law.

Another key issue will be the extent of contact between the relatives and the reclusive Clark. Her attorney and accountant portray the relatives as distant, having no contact with Clark. The relatives have said they and their older relatives had contact with Clark through the years, exchanging letters and telephone calls while respecting her desire for privacy, and that those contacts were cut off abruptly by her attorney about the same time as the wills were signed.

The second will tells a different story, attempting to foreclose any claim by family. "I intentionally make no provision in this my Last Will Testament (sic) for any members of my family, whether on my paternal or maternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years. The persons and institution named herein as beneficiaries of my Estate are the true objects of my bounty."

The 19 relatives are descended from the first marriage of Clark's father, the former U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925).

Huguette Clark, born in 1906, was married only briefly and had no children. Her only full sister died at age 16 and had no children. Her mother had no other children. Under state law that leaves 21 "intestate distributees" — the relatives who would inherit her estate if she left no will or if the court chooses to uphold the earlier will instead of the later one. Of those 21, 19 are challenging the will in court.

A public official investigating Clark's finances, the Public Administrator of the city of New York, has accused the attorney and executive of fraud in handling Clark's taxes. The attorney and accountant, also the subject of a criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, have said they handled Clark's finances appropriately and according to her wishes. No criminal charges have been filed. A judge has suspended thm from being executors, a role which would have earned them about $8 million each.

Speaking for nurse Peri, attorney Harvey E. Corn argued in court documents on Dec. 7 that Clark gave the money, and her doll collection, to her out of "gratitude for Ms. Peri's devoted service." Corn says that "Ms. Peri saw or communicated with the Decedent almost every day" during her nearly 20 years of service. And he says that hospital records from the six months around the signing of the wills show that Clark was in good health, "conversant, cheerful, well read and engaged in taking care of her personal affairs."

Hadassah Peri has not spoken publicly about Clark, but a press agent issued a statement on her behalf in June after she was named in the will: "I saw Madame Clark virtually every day for the 20 years. I was her private duty nurse but also her close friend. I knew her as a kind and generous person, with whom I shared many wonderful moments and whom I loved very much. I am profoundly sad at her passing, awed at the generosity she has shown me and my family, and eternally grateful. Just as Madame Clark demonstrated kindness toward others in her actions, so, too, will I and my family devote a substantial portion of this bequest toward making the world a better place for all people."

The public administrator's office has said in court papers that it might seek to "claw back" into the estate some of the gifts given from Clark's accounts while she lived. The administrator said the powers of attorney that Clark signed over to her attorney and accountant did not include the authority to give gifts, including a $5 million check written to Peri in 2009, after Clark herself stopped writing checks on her account. 

If that clawback effort is successful, and if the second will is thrown out, Peri could not only lose the large bequest but could also have to pay back some of what she now has. The public administrator also has filed challenges with the court, objecting to gifts and bills paid out by Clark's attorney and accountant, suggesting that a judgment could later be sought against them for return of that money to the estate.

The New York attorney general has also entered the case, representing the interests of charities that could be helped or hurt by the decision —those include the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, which is named in the second will to receive one of Monet's "Water Lilies" series of paintings, and the yet-unborn Bellosguardo Foundation, the art museum to be set up at her California home under the second will.

Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") Marcelle Clark lived quietly, secluded under fake names in a hospital room for more than two decades despite being in relatively good physical health. Intensely shy, she was almost entirely alone, aside from her private nurse, other helpers and occasional visits by her accountant. One of her former attorneys represented her for 20 years without meeting her face to face, instead talking to her on the phone and through a closed door.

In the last year of her life, after her three empty mansions drew the attention of a reporter for msnbc.com in late 2009, she became a subject of public fascination, a trending topic of searches on Google and Yahoo, pictured on the cover of the New York tabloids, with fan pages on Facebook, a biography on Wikipedia, and her story read by tens of millions — though the last known photograph of her was made in 1930. 

Previous stories in the Huguette Clark mystery series on msnbc.com:

Archive of all stories, photos and videos.

Photo narrative, "The Clarks: An American story of wealth, scandal and mystery," Feb. 26, 2010.

Printable version of the photo narrative, Feb. 26, 2010.

Clark family notes and sources, Feb. 26, 2010.

Investigative report, part one, "At 104, the mysterious heiress Huguette Clark is alone now: Relatives are kept away. Only her accountant and attorney visit. Who protects HuguetteClark, with 3 empty homes and no heirs?" Aug. 19, 2010.

Investigative report, part two, "Who is watching Huguette Clark's millions? Reclusive heiress's assets are sold by two advisers, one an accountant with a felony conviction. Another elderly client signed over his property to the same accountant and attorney," Aug. 20, 2010.

"Criminal probe begins into the finances of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark: Manhattan DA's Elder Abuse Unit is on the case. The same unit prosecuted the Brooke Astor case; Clark has about four times the wealth," Aug. 24, 2010.

"Report sparks welfare check on heiress Huguette Clark," Aug. 25, 2010.

"Generosity of an heiress: four homes for a nurse, gifts for attorney's family," Sept. 1, 2010.

"Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress, has signed a will, attorney says," Sept. 2, 2010.

"Family of copper heiress asks court to protect her from attorney, accountant," Sept. 3, 2010.

"Attorney for 104-year-old heiress defends his handling of her finances," Sept. 7, 2010.

"Judge leaves pair under investigation in control of heiress Huguette Clark's fortune," Sept. 9, 2010.

"Huguette Clark, the reclusive copper heiress, dies at 104," May 24, 2011.

"Family excluded from Huguette Clark burial," May 26, 2011.

"Heiress Huguette Clark's will leaves $1 million to advisers," June 22, 2011.

"The 1 percent of the 1 percent: How Huguette Clark's millions were spent," Nov. 19, 2011.

"A $400 miillion twist: Huguette Clark signed two wills, one to her family," Nov. 28, 2011.

"Tax fraud alleged in estate of heiress Huguette Clark; accountant resigns," Dec. 21, 2011.

"Nurse, in line to inherit millions, battles family of heiress Huguette Clark," Dec. 22, 2011.

"Judge bounces attorney and accountant from estate of heiress Huguette Clark," Dec. 23, 2011.

"Book coming on reclusive heiress Huguette Clark and her family," Feb. 3, 2012.

"You can move into heiress Huguette Clark's building, for $25 million," Feb. 6, 2012.