Celebrity Estate Planning - Howard Hughes - Episode 59
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Today, we’re on the “estate planning of the rich and famous” topic and today’s episode is on Howard Hughes – who, I believe, was one of the richest people on the planet for a good long time. Let’s talk a little bit about Howard – who he was, his family, how’d he become so wealthy, and then chat about his estate following his death. According to Biography.com, Howard was born in December 1905 in Houston, Texas. As a baby, he was born into money – you see, he was the son of quite the successful oil drill tool manufacturer and actually ended up inheriting the family business at the (arguably too young) age of 18. A few years later, he used some of the wealth to foot the bill of a couple of films – like, Hell’s Angels in 1930, Scarface in 1932 and The Outlaw in 1941.
Further, according to Biography.com, Howard had quite the passion for aviation – not only did he fly, but he also founded his own aircraft company in the 1930s. His love for flying came to a near-abrupt end when Howard was involved in a plane crash in 1946 – while he survived, supposedly after the event, he became a recluse and, as Biography.com states, “began to retreat from the world.” After the accident and into the 1960s, he actually chose to reside on the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas; though, very, very few people saw him … ever. Due to this, many started questioning his behavior more-and-more and some claim, according to Biography.com, that he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and had a drug problem. All of a sudden, he decided to leave Las Vegas – and he ended up taking off to live abroad in Mexico. Why, you ask? Well, why not, I suppose!
Though, unfortunately in April 1976, Howard died at the age of 70 years old. As a New York Times article stated, “Howard R. Hughes died … as mysteriously as he had lived.” It was odd because Howard was on his way to Texas (from Mexico) for emergency treatment; though, on his commute from Texas to Mexico by plane, he died in-air. He passed away due to a stroke.
So, estate plan-wise, Howard passed away without any estate plan – but not so fast, because some people came forward with what they claimed to be Howard’s Will or what they claimed to be valid …. Marriages. Yes, you heard my right. Marriages. And even people that came forward claiming to be adopted or illegitimate children of Howard.
Which one do we want to start with? Let’s start with the supposed Will – according to a blog by the Law Offices of Jeffrey G. Marsocci, supposedly a man found Howard not in great shape in Nevada in December 1967 … and the man gave Howard a ride to a hotel. The man claimed that a few days after Howard passed away, a Will was delivered to him and that Will gave him $156 Million Dollars. Well, that ended up in the Estate …. Litigation ensued, and ultimately, the Court said that the Will was forged. This was such a HUGE thing that a movie actually came out called “Melvin and Howard” in 1980 – it even won an Oscar. Anyway, so no Will there.
Then, these marriages. Let’s talk about ‘em. First, a lady by the name of Terry Moore, who was an actress, came forward and attempted to claim that her and Howard got married in 1949 on a ship off the coast of California – and the marriage papers were dumped overboard. Since her supposed-marriage to Howard, she had married and divorced three other men. So, ultimately the Judge threw the claim out. A second lady by the name of Alyce Hughes (interesting last name) said her and Howard got married in 1946 – there were some interesting allegations from Alyce, but again, the Judge threw out the claim. Lastly, a third woman came forward by the name of Alma Hughes. Again, Alma provided some interesting allegations against Howard, but claimed they married in 1973. The Judge threw out her claim, too. (Side note: If you want something interesting to read, check out the Washington Post article in my source links for this episode. Those allegations, though! Shew)
And, finally – let’s talk about the couple claims by people who claimed to be adopted and illegitimate children. One gentleman by the name of Donald McDonald, which I wish I was joking, but he also said he went by Richard Hughes, stated that Howard adopted him in 1953. The Judge threw out this claim. Then, there was a lady, which the Washington Post claims to be the “strangest of them all” (but they all seem very strange to me!), by the name of Claire Hudenburg. She claimed to be Howard’s illegitimate daughter. She was not in Court; though, her attorney read a sworn statement from her. In part, it read as follows:
“She is clairvoyant, can hear things from another world and was a king in three previous incarnations … that Harold Robbins’ novel, The Carpetbaggers, revealed she was Hughes’ daughter … that she bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Hughes … lived next door to him in the Bahamas in 1969 …. Etc.”
Ultimately, however, the Judge yet again was not persuaded and threw out her claim. So, because of all these wild claims getting thrown out, it was decided that Howard died without a Will, period, end of story – and the laws of intestacy would govern to provide who-is-getting-what of Howard’s Estate. So, we have talked about these laws of intestacy before plenty of times here on Legal Tea, but in case you’re listening from most recent to oldest episode or something, the laws of intestacy basically are a built-in estate plan for people that pass away without a Will. If you think about it, it makes sense because what’s the stat – like half the population does not have a Will or estate plan? Maybe more than half. Anyway, so these laws dictate how assets are to be distributed if there is no estate plan governing an asset when someone dies.
This was somewhat problematic and difficult because Howard had no direct descendants or really any sense of an immediate family. So, the Court, according to the Washington Post article, after nearly two months of testimony and hearings, determined that the following individuals were to receive various unequal shares of Howard’s Estate:
Howard’s Uncle’s Stepdaughter, Avis Hughes McIntyre, and Avis’ brothers’ heirs –received 4.75%.
Howard’s Uncle’s Granddaughters (3 of them) – Chris Roberts, Beth DePould, and Barbara Cameron – Each received 6.33%.
Howard’s Cousins (16 of them – I’m not going to bore you with all their names!) – were given 71.5%.
All according to an article on The Grunge, linked in the source for the episode. The Grunge article even said some of the people that inherited … never even had met Howard. Wow! Which is extra crazy since his Estate was worth, depending on you ask, on the low end, $500 Million or on the higher end, $1.5 Billion. Yes, with a B! I actually think I read somewhere that in today’s standard/currency, that would be about $9 Billion Dollars. Holy cow!
Which, when there’s that kind of money on the table, it makes sense how many people had their hands out ready to say, “Hey! I’m Howard’s wife, child, cousin, friend etc.” Actually, according to the Washington Post article, “more than 600 alleged wives, sons, daughters, first, second, third, fourth, and fifth cousins lined up in … [the] small courtroom on the fifth floor of the family law center on the north edge of downtown Houston with their hands out, trying to claim a share of the Hughes fortune.” All of this was specifically because Howard didn’t do a Will or ANY estate plan. And someone of his caliber, would’ve certainly benefitted from planning involving Trusts. But I digress…
Along these lines, it always blows my mind when I hear of celebrities, big name people … like Howard … that do not have a Will or any estate plan. I mean, how many people on these “estate planning of the rich and famous” episodes have we covered where the celebrities did NOT have an estate plan? SO many. It blows my mind because you know they have teams of lawyers and financial professionals around them – is it that these people are flat refusing to sit down and talk about their estate? Is it the professionals not bringing it up? Is it both? Every time it happens, I think, “They have sooooo much money – so much so, that why would they NOT want to be in the driver’s seat about who-gets-what?!” So often, the lack of planning leads to 1) conflicts, 2) confusion, 3) increased legal fees, 4) fighting with the IRS, etc. etc. You know they didn’t intentionally want things left like that, riiiight?
It took Howard’s Estate 34 years to wrap up – 34 years! And Howard’s Estate went to family members he had never met. But you know what? He has no one to blame but himself – same goes for anyone that does not do their estate plan. Oftentimes, when I hear of family conflicts in estates, it’s soooo often specifically due to the decedent --- the person that passed away – and something they did, or didn’t do, or said, or didn’t say, didn’t write down, … or even maybe they wanted to play Mr. Nice Guy and wouldn’t have tough conversations … or they waited until the 11th hour and it was too late, etc. etc. And you may be thinking, “That’s really nice of you, Jenny, to blame it on the dead person!” …But it’s true. Yes, families fight over even the cleanest of plans, but I’d say many, many, MANY families fight due to things directly due to the deceased person – and things they may have been able to control, but they didn’t.
As we wrap this episode up, my message to you is YOU have to take ownership and control of your own estate plan. Not only do you need to #DoYourEstatePlan, which is obvious but so many people do not do it, but it needs to be done well; tough conversations need to be had; things to be in writing; and you need to be totally honest with your estate planning attorney. I often tell clients that I 100% understand it's not an enjoyable thing to have to air our dirty laundry with your lawyer – it’s not fun to talk about your kiddo that is terrible with money; or the beneficiary that has a spouse that you’re massively concerned about; or the kid that is into drugs, alcohol, or gambling; or the beneficiary that you want to cut out … or not leave an equal share to. If you don’t tell us these things, we won’t know about them and can’t get your plan (and file) in a position to defend your wishes, if WWIII were to break out over your estate. So, just tell us. I promise – MOST families have something going on that they aren’t thrilled to talk to me about. You just have to be brave enough to share it with me … so I can protect you and your wishes.
Okay, let’s wrap this episode up – next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about how even “really simple Wills” should have basic testamentary trusts to support minor children (i.e. grandchildren, if they were to inherit) and/or support individuals that receive governmental benefits (i.e. Medicaid or SSI). This topic is actually why I sometimes giggle when people say, “Jenny, allllllll I need is a reallllllly simple Will.” We’ll dive into that next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Until then, take care and be well!