Today’s New York Times contains an article about the death of “Barbara Piasecka Johnson, Maid Who Married Multimillionaire, Dies at 76.”

Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish immigrant who came to America to work as a maid, first worked for J. Seward Johnson, Sr., the heir to the Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid and baby powder fortune – and then married him.

At his death his six children challenged the will that gave her practically all of Johnson’ $500 million net worth. One writer has referred to the probate case as “the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular and most conspicuous” probate battle in American History.

The three year probate litigation generated $24 million in attorney’s fees.  At the end of the probate litigation, Mrs. Johnson, who came to the United States in 1968 with $200 in her pocket, inherited more than $300 million from her husband’s estate at the conclusion of the probate litigation in 1986.

The probate case, typical of practically all will contests, involved “mountains of paperwork and four months of sometimes tawdry testimony that exposed the unhappy private lives in one of America’s richest families.”

The testimony given at trial varied depending on who called the witnesses.  All of them couldn’t have been telling the truth because of the dichotomy of the testimony given by the different witnesses.  At the end, the case was settled shortly before it was to go to the jury.

The only thing atypical about this probate case is the amount of wealth involved.  Otherwise it is consistent with practically all other contested probate matters.

The story’s a good read.  There was even a book written about the probate case: “Undue Influence” in 1993.

The lesson to be learned is to ensure that proper estate planning has been accomplished and protective measures are in place to avoid the pitfalls of age, avarice and greed – even among family members.

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