Law school professors are famous for telling students: “Never be in the casebook.” The casebook is, of course, the text books used to teach students the law. It is chock full of cases that have been appealed and appealed again. No one not in a Dickens novel wants to be involved in cases like that.
Imagine, then, a case that not only could make the casebook (I don’t know if it’s in there, I’m far beyond those now, thankfully) but has books written about it. Full length, award winning non-fiction works. Now imagine it’s about a will contest centering around undue influence.
That’s the sad state of the story of the fight over the Johnson & Johnson fortune. It may involve a few fabulously wealthy people but it most certainly is a cautionary tale for everyone.
Briefly (be thankful, the book takes 617 pages to tell the story – and every one of them is needed): John Seward Johnson I was one of the sons of Robert Wood Johnson, the co-founder of Johnson & Johnson. Born in 1895, he married fairly young and had four children. He divorced his first wife and remarried in 1939. They were married for 36 years and had two children. In 1968 a very bright, pretty, ambitious farmer’s daughter from Poland, Basia Piasecka, became a cook in the Johnson manor, then a chambermaid.
She caught Johnson’s eye when he found her admiring a painting he had just bought. Basia, who had earned a Masters in Art History in Poland, told Johnson he had overpaid for it, then proved why. She was promoted to Johnson’s art consultant a year after serving as a chambermaid.
In 1971, Johnson divorced his wife and married Basia. He was 76, she was 34. None of the six children attended the wedding. They were still married when Johnson died in 1983. She was the executor of his will. The will that left nothing to any of the children while it ‘disinherited’ the charity that Johnson had founded and supported for most of his adult life.
The children weren’t left with nothing – Johnson had set up trusts for them years earlier, treating the children from both marriages basically the same. But, they were very explicitly and publicly ‘cut out’ of the will. And Basia got pretty much everything.
The children sued the estate, claiming that Basia exerted ‘undue influence’ in getting their father to exclude them from the will. The charity sued as well. The suit was in trial for three years before a settlement was reached. It became the subject of a series of Vanity Fair articles, at least weekly coverage in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, was the subject of two well-received books, and a HBO documentary.
The thing I take from all this: a second (and third) marriage, unhappy children, raw emotions, using estate planning as retribution (and vice versa). Take the money out of it and it’s a very commonplace occurrence, it just doesn’t make the papers.
It’s a fact pattern we see everyday. If it’s one you recognize as well because you’re in it, please call us.
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