Court Awards $50M to Widow Over Poor Kids

Rich versus poor: An American millionaire's will resolved in Panama.

Oct. 8, 2010— -- The poor children of Panama won't be getting the $50 million estate of an American tycoon after all. After a bitter court battle, Panama's highest court has ruled that the estate of Wilson C. Lucom will instead go to his widow and her politically-connected family.

It's case that has spanned more than four years and the attention of countless lawyers and courts.

Lucom amassed a fortune during his 88 years of life. His holdings include a multimillion dollar Panama ranch called Hacienda Santa Monica and property from Okeechobee, Florida to Palm Desert, California.

The case came down to whether the poor children from Lucom's adopted home of Panama would receive the fortune or his widow Hilda, who was provided for in the will, but contested the bulk of the estate going to the poor.

"His gift to the kids had two equally balanced purposes because he was a poor guy: He came up the hard way, and he really didn't like the way poor kids were treated [in Panama]. And, the other part of Lucom was his alienation from all the rest of her family," says Lucom's tax attorney Richard S. Lehman, an executor of the estate.

But his heirs argued that Lucom didn't like children at all, never talked about helping them, and never intended his money to go to the underprivileged.

Before settling in Panama, Wilson Lucom was a Palm Beach, Florida resident who inherited great wealth after the death of his wife Virginia Willys, the daughter of automotive giant John Willys. The two married 1954 and remained together until her death in 1981.

The following year Lucom would marry Hilda Piza de Arias -- his second or third wife -- the number is unclear since it is rumored that Lucom married at a young age to a woman who would have been his first wife.

In the will, Lucom left Hilda a minimum of $240,000 and the lifetime use of his art and antiques. The largest chunk of his estate -- as much as $50 million -- went to establish a fund that was to aid the poor children of Panama.

"I instruct trustees to find an area where there are children's schools that don't have meals for lunch, and lack the usual needs and those provided by schools where lunch is provided. It is my wish that the directors of schools form groups of volunteers with parents and others, and that they plant with seed provided by the Wilson C. Lucom Trust Fund," the will states.

After the tycoon's death, his family was incredulous about the Panama bequest. "He never talked to me about poor children," Hilda Lucom said in a deposition.

"If there was any truth or any validity, he would have had a court or judge in Florida or Panama rule in his favor," says Matias Dorta, a partner at Tew Cardenas LLP, who represented Lucom's widow.

A staunch conservative, Lucom wasn't known for being timid or shy. A man of strong beliefs, Lucom founded Concerned Voters and co-founded the conservative group Accuracy In Media.

Born in Pennsylvania, the exact whereabouts unclear, Lucom attended Fordham and Georgetown University before serving as special assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. during the Roosevelt administration.

Later in life, his beliefs became extreme. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Lucom wrote a piece featuring what he dubbed the "Lucom Plan" calling for using a neutron bomb on the attackers and putting a $1 billion bounty on Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.

Though Lucom left $50,000 to $200,000 to his five stepchildren from his wife Hilda, his will was specific on others getting his cash: "My wife's grandchildren and other relatives must look to their inheritance from their parents, who are wealthy."

The court fight focused on whether Lucom knew what he was signing in the Spanish-language will. The English interpretation of his 2005 will, made out shortly before he died, states, "he needed an interpreter because he did not fully understand the Spanish language."

Another oddity of the will was the stipulation that the working poor or someone else would have to donate land in order to receive the seeds that would grow food for the poor kids. Lucom's estate, however, included 7,000 acres of land in Panama.

The poor children won't see their share in any case. Though lower courts had upheld the will, Panama's supreme court declared it void last month. The court said Lucom's reference to his "beloved wife" demonstrated that he really wanted her to inherit the estate.

Panama's justice system has long been accused of favoring those in power.

When Hilda dies, her five children from a previous marriage are in line to get the Lucom fortune. That family includes former presidents, diplomats and ministers of Panama. Hilda Lucom has plans to donate to numerous organizations across the country, according to Dorta.

But there is worry that, "the ruling will probably drive some of the wealthier foreign retirees and bank depositors away from Panama, as it stands for the proposition that neither the law nor the unambiguous wills of individuals will stand in the way of the desires of Panama's predatory aristocratic families," the English-language Panama News wrote.