I was scrolling through Netflix the other night and finally landed on The Aviator, which I haven’t seen in a while. The 2004 Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio tells the story of the eccentric aviation magnate and movie producer, Howard Hughes, who tragically battled OCD, paranoia, and chronic pain (from a near-death plane crash) and spent his later life as a hermit. That led me down a rabbit hole of internet research into the real Howard Hughes. As an estate planner, I naturally wondered what happened to his estate when he passed away in 1976. (Perhaps fittingly the aviator passed away in an airplane.)
Even if You’re Not a Billionaire, You Need an Estate Plan
Unfortunately, the tale of the Hughes estate is a cautionary one of what NOT to do.
Hughes—who was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world—died intestate, meaning he died without a valid will. That can cause chaos, confusion, and cost ample time and money for regular folks. But, when your estate is worth billions like Hughes’ was, it causes a mass tangle of court proceedings. In the case of the Hughes estate, debate and disputes lasted a total of 34 years.
In the aftermath of his death, several documents were brought forth alleging to be the magnate’s will. All were deemed to be forgeries. A Nevada court determined Hughes died intestate, meaning the law determines how assets are distributed to heirs-at-law. However, Hughes died divorced (allegedly) and without any close relatives; he left no clear heir(s). This debacle of no will meant that many people came out of the woodwork claiming to be relatives.
A Messy Web of Forgeries, Fraud, & Litigation
So, after years of attorneys, courts, and dubious claims, what actually transpired?
Eventually, $2.5 billion was split between 22 of Hughes legal cousins in 1983. (Undoubtedly he didn’t know some or even the majority of these people. It’s also been said he didn’t want his money to go to his distant relatives, but without an estate plan, his wishes were steamrolled by probate law.) In an interesting twist, a woman named Terry Moore came forth claiming she married Hughes on a boat in international in 1949 and that they were never divorced. She didn’t produce any proof of the marriage (like a marriage certificate), but the estate paid her a $400,000.
The Supreme Court even had to step in. They ruled in the messy dispersion of assets that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute owned Hughes Aircraft, which it then sold off in 1985 to General Motors for more than $5 billion. The Court also rejected lawsuits brought by Texas and California, claiming they were owed inheritance taxes, but the suits were eventually put to rest with settlements of $50 million and $150 million respectively in property and/or cash.
In 2010, more than three decades after Hughes passed, the last slice of Hughes pie (Summerlin residential development community near Las Vegas) was liquidated.
Leave a Valuable Legacy
Undoubtedly, Hughes left his mark on 20th century American history. However, his legacy could have been cemented in the way he wanted (probably giving the bulk of his estate to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and nothing to long lost cousins) if he would have had a proper estate plan created completed with valuable strategic tools like different trusts and charitable giving vehicles. While most of us will never have an estate valued even close to the likes of Hughes, we can be smart with what we do have and make certain what we choose is dispersed to whom we choose, when we choose. There’s no need for your assets to be tied up in red tape or be dispersed in a way that’s not fitting with your wishes.
Contact me with your estate planning questions, or get started with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire, which will help you organize important information needed for the plan in one place.