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.

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
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
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

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz