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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.