Family fights over wills, trusts and estates are far too common, not only in our country, but elsewhere. Sometimes, those fights reach a whole new level. This has certainly been the case with a tragic story from Panama which harmed those most in need … millions of impoverished and starving children.
A Florida attorney, Richard Lehman, takes center stage in the dispute. He recently sued political officials throughout Panama — including three Supreme Court judges — charging corruption, bribery, theft, and much more. The fight involves the estate of Lehman’s former friend and client, Wilson Lucom.
When he died in June of 2006 at the age of 88, Lucom was an expatriate American living in Panama. One year before he died, Lucom signed a will generously leaving the majority of his $50 million fortune to a trust fund to benefit the poor and needy children of Panama. That fortune includes ocean-front real estate which has appreciated in value, so that Lucom’s estate is now valued at more than $150 million.
Lucom’s widow, Hilda Piza Lucom, was well-connected in Panamanian political circles. In fact, she used to be married to the son of a President of Panama. Lucom’s will left her a monthly allowance of $20,000 and the right to live in and use the marital home throughout her life. Her children also received specific bequests (Lucom had no children of his own). But Hilda wanted more … much more.
Hilda sued to challenge the will and claimed that Lucom’s attorney, Richard Lehman, had coerced Lucom into creating it so he could manage the charitable trust, which the will named as the primary beneficiary to Lucom’s vast estate. Through the lawsuit, a court in Panama removed Lehman as the estate’s executor, but ultimately found the will valid. Hilda then appealed to another court, which again found the will valid.
Finally, she appealed again to the Supreme Court of Panama. That Court, acting through three judges, issued a strange decision which upheld the will but at the same time ruled that Lucom really wanted to benefit his “beloved wife.” The judges overturned the distribution of the bulk of Lucom’s fortune to his charitable trust fund and instead named Hilda as the “universal heir.”
Several different people, including the notary who signed the will and even a prosecutor, filed challenges to the Supreme Court’s decision. In the face of those legal challenges, the entire Supreme Court of Panama decided to review the case a second time. For the last year, the case has been in a holding pattern, until the Supreme Court issues another ruling.
In the meantime, the Florida attorney, Lehman, is tired of waiting for the money to be released to help the poverty-stricken children in Panama. It is estimated that 20% of Panamanian children suffer from malnutrition and more than one-half of children under the age of five live in poverty. Lehman says he wants the children to finally benefit from Lucom’s wishes.
So Lehman recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida, accusing Hilda, some of her adult children from her first marriage, and various Panamanian judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and others, of being part of a massive, criminal RICO conspiracy. RICO is a set of United States federal laws used to combat organized crime and corruption.
In his lawsuit under the RICO laws, Lehman accuses the three Supreme Court judges of accepting bribes in the amount of $1.5 million, each. He says Hilda and others acting on her behalf caused numerous false criminal charges to be asserted against him — including one for murder — in an effort to prevent him from acting as estate executor and to inhibit him from fighting against them in court. He even suggests that the conspiracy led to a murder attempt on the life of one of Lehman’s allies.
The RICO lawsuit seeks $732 million in damages on behalf of Lehman and the charitable trust that Lucom created to implement his directive to benefit poor children in Panama. You can read the complaint that recently started this lawsuit here.
Lehman said, in an interview with Thompson Reuters, that “every word” in his RICO complaint is true and he wants the whole world to know about the corruption in Panama and the effect it’s had on the starving children there.
His opponents think that this is nonsense. One of the attorneys fighting against Lehman, Matias Dorta, emailed us a copy of the Florida’s judge’s ruling, which referred to Lehman as, “a covetous opportunist using the ancillary estate assets … seeking personal advantage and control of assets in the $25-50 million domiciliary estate.” Dorta says that Lehman’s new claims were already raised and dismissed in a previous lawsuit.
Clearly, there are two sides to the story, and both sides accuse the other of foul play. You can read the Florida Judge’s decision against Lehman, here.
Regardless of whether Lehman’s more-shocking allegations are true, the fact remains that Lucom signed a will wanting to benefit those in Panama who most needed help. While some question whether Lucom really had these charitable intentions, the case does present a lesson. This lengthy and expensive probate court fight could have been largely avoided.
How? There was no reason for Lucom to rely on a will and force his assets to pass through the court system, which had been accused by many of being corrupt. While Lucom created a trust — in Panama — to implement his wishes (at least, according to Lehman), that trust was never funded with his estate assets before he died.
Lucom could have transferred his assets into his trust during his lifetime. Or, better yet, he could have created a trust somewhere other than Panama (like Florida for example), transferred his assets into it, and avoided the Panama court system entirely.
Creating and a funding a revocable living trust — early, before there is a question of mental competency or undue influence — is the best way to prevent a family fight over your estate. By making this change late in life, and failing to use a trust to avoid probate, Lucom made it much harder for his wishes to be followed.
It’s a sad lesson that everyone can learn from.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.