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
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Business Development Manager (District Heating)

£55000 Per Annum plus company car and bonus scheme: The Green Recruitment Comp...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Chemical Engineer/Project Coordinator

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Chemical Eng...

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn