Did a hospital coerce a reclusive copper heiress to give away part of her $300 million dollar estate?

Did a hospital coerce a reclusive copper heiress to give away part of her $300 million dollar estate? That is what relatives of Huguette Clark are claimed in a suit filed in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court. Ms. Clark was admitted to Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan in 1991 when she was 85 years old, after she was found in her Fifth Avenue apartment emaciated and in poor health. Despite recovering just a few months later, Ms. Clark remained in the hospital for the next 20 years until she died in May 2011 at the age of 104. During her time at the hospital, she paid over $800 per day and made numerous substantial donations to the hospital, including a Manet painting valued at $6 million, at least $4 million in cash donations, and another $1 million left to the hospital in her will.

In addition to her donations to Beth Israel Medical Center, she left an estimated $28 million in gifts to her nurse, which included three Manhattan apartments, two homes, and a Stradivarius violin worth an estimated $1.2 million. Clark also left $3 million to her doctors’ families. A spokesman for Continuum Health Partners released this statement to the Huffington Post:
Huguette Clark was a patient of Beth Israel Medical Center from 1991 until her death at age 104 in 2011. During that time, Ms. Clark was provided excellent and compassionate care. The current court proceedings are motivated by the financial interests of very distant relatives with whom Ms. Clark chose not to associate during her lifetime and most of whom did not know her. The publicity they actively seek in order to gain access to her estate is most distressing, particularly since Ms. Clark was an extremely private person.
As a non-profit hospital that provides care to people from all walks of life, we consider private philanthropy to be an essential component of our hospital’s administrative activities. Indeed development activities are standard practice in all large academic medical centers. We remain grateful to Ms. Clark for her philanthropic gifts that ultimately benefited the many patients who turn to us for help.
The efforts of the hospital to obtain donations from Clark described in court documents detail employees researching her family history, visiting her often, and presenting her with gifts, which the New York Times referred to as an “all-out fundraising campaign.” Hospital emails reveal questions of whether the legal department would approve of Clark living there and jokes about Clark not “tak[ing] the bait” to offer more Manet paintings when the one she donated to the hospital did not sell for as much money as they had anticipated.
In Florida, inter vivos transfers of property, or gifts made during a person’s lifetime, fall within the rule elucidated in the matter of In re Estate of Carpenter, 253 So. 2d 697 (Fla. 1971). See Fogel v. Swann, 523 So. 2d 1227 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988). The Carpeter rule creates a presumption of undue influence when there is a confidential relationship between the donor and the donee and the donee actively procures the gift. In re Estate of Carpenter, 253 So. 2d 697 (Fla. 1971). An early Florida Supreme Court case defined undue influence as “overpersuasion, coercion, or force that destroys or hampers the free agency and will power of the testator.” Newman v. Smith, 77 Fla. 667 (1918). As evidence came to light in the Clark case, it appeared that there was in fact undue influence, and the gifts were not solely the product of the eccentricity and gratitude of n millionairess who willingly bestowed gifts upon the people who took care of her during her last 20 years. Ultimately, the case was settled, and Ms. Clark’s distant relatives ended up receiving $80 million.
If you or someone you know have questions about undue influence or think a family member may have been subject to undue influence, please do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Chepenik Trushin LLP. The experienced attorneys at Chepenik Trushin are ready, willing, and able to assist with your estate planning needs. Please feel free to contact us for an initial consultation.