Family fight will that leaves $50m to children of Panama

It was a gift of historic kindness to the poor children of Panama left by an eccentric American millionaire not previously known for his tenderness towards the young. Nor was Wilson Lucom famous for naivety. So perhaps he should have guessed that the sequel to his death would be a probate battle for the ages.

In theory, the will and testament of Mr Lucom, a former American diplomat who became thoroughly rich through successive marriages, contained the biggest charitable donation ever seen in the country of Panama. He had directed that tens of millions of dollars be spent combating child malnutrition.

But two years after his passing at the age of 88, not a dime of the money has yet gone to the youngsters. Instead, the entire fortune has become locked in a legal tug-of-war that has reached courts in Panama as well as in the United States and the islands of St Kitts and Nevis.

Mr Lucom's mistake may have been to have acted so out of character. Or at least that is how it seemed. While he might have been expected to have left the bulk of his money to his third wife, Hilda, and her grown-up child-ren, he did not. With them he was entirely stingy.

It should be said that Hilda is the matriarch of a clan not short of comforts or cash. She is an Arias, a family which over time has given the country not one but two presidents and is symbolic of Panama's white elite. These are powerful folk who do not take perceived insults lightly.

What seems incontrovertible is that in his last years of life, Mr Lucom, who had no children of his own, re-crafted his will in secret to make sure it was less the Arias family who benefited and more the youngsters of Panama. Hunger remains a serious challenge, particularly in rural areas. At stake is at least $50m (£25m) or more and the old man's idea was for the money to go towards the purchase of seeds to grow food in the poorest regions.

He did for a while consider another option: leaving all his fortune as a bounty for the capture of Osama bin Laden. He often told friends that catching Bin Laden had always only been a question of cash.

But Hilda, who is frail at 88, her children and their lawyers did not just gape when they heard the will, they acted fast, targeting in particular a Florida-based tax lawyer, Richard Lehman, who was hired by Mr Lucom as his executor. They have argued that Mr Lehman took control of the fortune too quickly, even before Mr Lucom's death, and that he has used his position to benefit himself.

So far, two lower courts in Panama have ruled against the Arias position. Late last year, however, the case was propelled up to the country's Supreme Court where it may languish for months if not years. And Mr Lehman as well as the charities waiting for the Lucom funds, fear that its ruling, whenever it may come, will be tainted by political pressures.

Mr Lehman, who created a trust to hold the Lucom funds in St Kitts & Nevis, a Caribbean tax haven, is afraid even to return to Panama today for fear he may be arrested. The Arias family were even claiming that he euthanised Mr Lucom – an allegation already knocked down by the courts. But his determination to defend what he insists were the legitimate wishes of the old man seems undiminished. "I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror if I gave up this case," he said recently.

In one legal memo, he voiced his opinion of the Arias family slightly more frankly. "Since the death of Lucom, Hilda and the Arias family have understood that I am the only obstacle to their greed."

Not that Hilda's lawyers have been any kinder. "In this story, the only poor child is Lehman," one of her representatives anonymously told a Miami newspaper.

"This is the worst example of a coffin-chaser that we know of. He is a gentleman that has nearly invented a will that tries to place him as the sole heir."

Mr Lucom once served as an assistant to the US Secretary of State in Franklin Roosevelt's White House and was in San Francisco at the founding of the United Nations. He acquired part of his fortune through his second wife, the daughter of a car-making tycoon in Ohio.

In 1992, he famously sold his mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, for $14.3m to a relative of the King of Saudi Arabia.

If in writing his will, he was demonstrating a belated conversion to philanthropic largesse, Mr Lucom may of course have been responding to another impulse: spite against his in-laws.

"One day he told me, 'Ha ha ha, they will soon see my will'", Mr Lehman recalled of his client.

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
tv

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

News
John Moore inspired this Coca Cola Christmas advert
people

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Jamie Oliver’s version of Jollof rice led thousands of people to post angry comments on his website
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film

Review: Mike Leigh's biopic is a rambling, rich character study

Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
film
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher Thetford Secondary

£110 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: An Academy based in Thetfor...

Secondary Teacher Great Yarmouth

£115 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are currently work...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Special Needs Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes