It's been almost a year since The Probate Lawyer Blog featured a story on the court battle over whether the heiress to the L'Oreal fortune has been a victim of fraud and exploitation. 87-year old Liliane Bettencourt has been called Europe's richest woman. In the article I wrote last December, I explained how Bettencourt's daughter, Francois Bettencourt Meyers, sued to prove that a celebrity photographer had received gifts from the elder Bettencourt of more than one billion dollars by preying on her mental frailty.
The gift recipient, Francois-Marie Banier, and Bettencourt said she was competent and made the gifts of her own free will because they were dear friends. And yes, they said, it's a lot of money, but considering her fortune has been recently valued at $13 billion (U.S. value) by Forbes, it's not that much money. (Anyone buy that?)
I had suggested last year that I found it odd that Meyers hadn't started a guardianship proceeding to have her mother declared legally incompetent. Well, now she has tried that, but the effort failed because Bettencourt refused to submit to a medical evaluation of her mental state, even though a doctor who reviewed her medical records apparently felt she needed a guardian (that doctor's report is what Meyers relied on for her guardianship filing).
Now, Meyers has tried a different path. She's asked for permission to criminally prosecute Banier. France, unlike the United States, allows for private citizens to prosecute someone, but only if the judge allows it. A few days ago, the French judge ruled that Meyers could proceed with the prosecution. This means that not only would Banier face losing the gifts worth more than a billion dollars, but up to three years in prison as well, if Meyers' efforts are successful.
Plus, the judge has ordered Bettencourt to undergo a medical review before March 10th. This may give Meyers grounds to reopen the guardianship request.
Sadly, the legal battle has exposed a rift between Meyers and her mother. Reportedly, the two don't see each other except in passing during meetings at L'Oreal (both are directors of the corporation). Meyers wrote her mother a letter explaining that she was acting out of love, but Bettencourt feels betrayed.
Obviously, it wasn't an easy decision for Meyers. Stay silent and watch her mother give away billions, or go to court and alienate her mother. On the other hand, if Bettencourt truly did give away the property while she was competent, then her daughter may simply be butting in and embarrassing her mother without sufficient cause.
It's never an easy situation for anyone who suspects a loved one is being taken advantage of. Anyone in that predicament should consider speaking with an experienced guardianship attorney. It's important to know your legal rights and seek expert advice to find out when court may be the right choice for your family.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at blog @ trialandheirs.com.