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Howard Hughes' Will

Howard Hughes' Will

Howard Hughes, Jr. (19051976), an aviator, film producer, and manufacturer, died a multibillionaire. Unmarried and childless, Hughes left no clear heir. He had spent his final years as a mentally ill recluse and no one knew his intentions for his fortune. The fierce battle over the Hughes estate became a public spectacle involving dueling handwriting experts and neuropathology. The fight illustrates the difficulty of disproving hoaxes in the days before advanced forensic testing.

Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, to a mining engineer who devised an oil-drill bit that revolutionized the American oil industry. The family became wealthy, but the early death of his parents had a profound effect on Hughes. Always withdrawn, he became a hypochondriac fearful of germs. He ended his education in 1924 to enter the world of business. Not content with inheriting 75% of his father's tool company fortune, Hughes bought out the other 25% previously dispersed among relatives. The agreements with his relatives were bitterly arrived at and caused a permanent rift. After hiring executives to run his business, Hughes moved to Los Angeles and became a film producer. In 1933, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and it grew into one of the most profitable aircraft production companies in the world. Obsessive-compulsive by nature, Hughes became ever more eccentric as the years passed. Additionally, after sustaining serious injuries in an airplane crash, he became addicted to the painkiller codeine.

Hughes eventually refused to see people other than his closest business executives. Living behind closed curtains, he became best known to the public for his uncut hair and long fingernails. In November 1970, Hughes moved to the Bahamas to avoid taxes. He never returned to the United States. The last six years of his life were those of an itinerant exile, moving from one luxurious hotel to another. In his last years, Hughes refused medical treatment and did not eat properly. He became an emaciated wreck, weighing only ninety-four pounds at the time of his death. He denied his aides the right to tend him, until he finally lapsed into unconsciousness. They then flew him in an air ambulance to Houston, but he was dead of kidney failure by the time the plane landed, on April 5, 1976.

Hughes' death set off a stampede for his fortune. The assets of Summa Corporation, under which all of his businesses were governed, were valued at more than $2 billion. Probate was opened in Houston, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. No one was certain if Hughes had left a will. George Francom, a personal aide, later testified that Hughes once mentioned he had drawn up a handwritten will. But when Francom asked about its whereabouts, the ever-suspicious Hughes refused to tell him where it was.

Summa conducted a worldwide search, but failed to turn up a signed document. The search did, however, yield an unsigned carbon copy of a 1954 will, written at the time Hughes set up the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Florida. Stating his concern about germs and disease, Hughes declared that he wanted the institute to inherit most of his wealth and accomplish something good in his name.

The Summa representatives presented this 1954 carbon copy to a probate court as the best available evidence of Hughes' intentions. They argued that although a written will could not be found, Hughes' real and declared intent was to leave his whole fortune to the medical institute. Summa vice president Frank William Gay, attorney Chester Davis, and Hughes' former administrative assistant, Nadine Henley, wanted to continue to run the Hughes empire. Under their plan, as trustees of the medical institute, they would remain in command. They hoped to block the legal offensive of Hughes' former aide Noah Dietrich, with whom Hughes split in 1956, and who entered the fray with a new will.

The Mormon will, dated March 19, 1968, appeared days after Hughes' death as a public relations executive of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) sorted through the mail on his desk one afternoon. A tattered yellow envelope, bearing a partly illegible Las Vegas postmark, was addressed to Spencer W. Kimball, president of the Mormon Church. Inside the first envelope was a smaller one that bore instructions written in a large scrawl. Kimball was directed to deliver the enclosed will to legal authorities in Clark County, Nevada. It was signed Howard R. Hughes.

The Mormons immediately doubted the legitimacy of the document. The three-page document, on lined legal paper identical to the type Hughes regularly used for memos to his staff, lacked the signatures of witnesses. Not wishing to appear foolish, Mormon Church leaders submitted the will to a Utah handwriting expert, Leslie King, who had studied Hughes' handwriting in an earlier court case. After a quick examination, she declared that Hughes possibly wrote the will. The Mormons then went to Las Vegas, the seat of Clark County, to file the testament.

The Mormon will gave one-fourth of the Hughes estate to the Hughes Medical Institute; divided one-eighth between the University of Texas, the University of Nevada, and the University of California; gave one-sixteenth to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; sent one-sixteenth to establish a home for orphaned children; gave one-sixteenth to go to the Boy Scouts of America; split one-sixteenth among Hughes' ex-wives, Jean Peters of Los Angeles and Ella Rice of Houston; gave one-sixteenth to cousin William R. Lummis (spelled Lommis in the will) and gave the last one-sixteenth to Melvin Du Mar (spelling incorrect) of Gabbs, Nevada. Dummar stated that he picked up the hitchhiking Hughes in 1968, loaned him a quarter, and never had any further connection with the old man after dropping him off. The remainder of the estate went to the key men in Hughes' company. Dietrich was named executor of the estate despite the fact that he had not spoken with Hughes since 1956. Executors receive a portion of an estate for their services, giving Dietrich a financial interest in the case.

The will immediately became suspect because of the numerous spelling errors that filled its pages as well as suspect references. Hughes paid painstaking attention to detail throughout his life and never made vague statements. Dummar was suspected of forging the Mormon will, because no one could understand why Hughes would leave him one hundred and fifty million dollars or why the reclusive and germ-phobic billionaire would hitchhike. Dummar later admitted that his story was false. Lastly, lawyers who worked for Hughes found it inconceivable that he would have relied on a handwritten last testament. He had a deep fear that his handwriting could be forged and even tried to keep his signature secret.

In 1976 the technology did not exist for accurate forensic examination of the Mormon will. Ten handwriting experts, included well-known Bernard Bern, declared the document to be in Hughes' handwriting. One stated that the writing was typical of Hughes' consistent inconsistencies.

Hughes had three maternal second cousins who would become his heirs under Texas law if there was no will. Handwriting expert Spencer Otis, one of the most-respected analysts in the United States, examined the Mormon will and declared it to be a forgery. Hughes' relatives on his maternal side combined with his relatives from the paternal side to fight Summa. The heirs, who numbered twenty-three in all, were led by William Lummis. They wanted the estate to be divided according to a formula that would give nearly one-quarter to Lummis' mother and distribute the rest among the other heirs.

Meanwhile, a neuropathologist examined a portion of Hughes' brain that had been preserved in a jar on a shelf in Houston's Methodist Hospital. The scientist searched for evidence of disease or damage that could have impaired Hughes' judgment. Such a finding would throw into question anything that Hughes signed or said during his later years, but the neuropathologist found nothing significant.

By the end of 1976, the legal battle over the Hughes estate involved at least two hundred lawyers who pored over records in half a dozen states to find clues as to Hughes' intentions for his empire. They found a key to a safe-deposit box among Hughes' belongings in his old Hollywood office in Hollywood and a 1938 registered letter to the First National Bank in Houston saying he was enclosing a will. Neither discovery produced results.

In June 1978, after a seven-month trial, a jury decided by unanimous verdict that Hughes did not author the Mormon will. In the absence of another valid will, the court awarded the Hughes estate to the billionaire's surviving relatives. Lummis, as the court-appointed executor, agreed to administer the estate. By this time, the value of the Hughes' estate had dropped into the millions, with much of the fortune going to attorney's fees.

see also Document forgery; Handwriting analysis; Questioned documents.

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