On Thursday 4 April 2013, the New York Times published the obituary of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, an immensely rich lady who had been born and died in Poland but who had been married to an American – J. Seward Johnson Sr, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.
This obituary caught my eye when it mentioned in the first paragraph that she had been involved in the ‘largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular and most conspicuous’ probate battle in American history. I had to read on!
Mrs Johnson arrived in America from Poland in 1968 with possibly $200. She had studied in Poland, including enrolling on a doctoral course, but seems to have decided to move to America to improve her English. She had been planning to find work on a Polish newspaper or in a museum, but was encouraged to work as a domestic helper instead in order to get free board and lodgings. She then moved in with a Polish family in New Jersey and went with them to a party where she met one of the maids to the Johnson family who told her that there was an opening for a cook.
She duly applied for that position and was appointed, but turned out not to be much of a cook and so carried out the tasks of a maid instead. In 1969, she moved to New York to take art classes, and was set up in an apartment in Manhattan by Mr Johnson who later moved in with her. In 1971 he divorced his wife and the couple married at a time when she was 34 and he was 76.
It seems that Mr Johnson’s six children did not accept the marriage, and none were even invited to the wedding. By the time of Mr Johnson’s death in 1983, they were ready for a battle.
Mr Johnson left virtually his entire estate, valued at up to $500 million, to his wife and nothing to five of his six children. They were already all millionaires as a result of trust funds which their father had set up for them but were incensed by this and challenged the Will on the grounds of undue influence. They claimed that their father was took weak and feeble to resist the demands of his much younger wife, and that (for example) she had screamed at and even hit her husband. By contrast, she produced evidence that they had been happy and affectionate with each other and that he was alert and coherent at the time he changed his Will.
The battle went on for three years and cost over $24 million (the obituary does not specify whether that was the actual cost at the time or the cost in today’s money, but either way it is an incredible sum) and settled shortly before it was to be heard by a jury. The settlement was reported to be $300 million for Mrs Johnson, $40 million for the children, and the remainder for charity, taxes and costs. An interesting footnote is that both sides apparently claimed victory and held parties, with the judge and jurors attending the children’s party – something which it is difficult to imagine an English judge doing.
Following the conclusion of the proceedings, Mrs Johnson lived in Monaco and also had homes in Italy and Poland. During her marriage she had collected valuable art (including paintings and drawings by Rembrandt, Botticelli and Raphael amongst others) and she continued to do so, holding a critically acclaimed exhibition named ‘Opus Sacrum’ in Warsaw in 1990. The home which she built in Princeton with her husband, Jasna Polana, is now a gold club.
Undue influence allegations are not unusual in this type of case – where the deceased marries, or enters into a relationship with someone far younger, then changes their Will in that person’s favour and in the process disinherits those who may have been expected to inherit. However, undue influence is difficult to prove.
It is natural to be influenced by other people, particularly when it comes to making a Will, and this can have unexpected and hurtful outcomes for people. The Court has no power to overrule the wishes of the deceased unless it can be shown that the influence was such as to really be coercion or fraud. This may well be very difficult where the person who was apparently influenced is dead, and the person who applied the pressure is likely to be resistant to being questioned about their actions in Court (there is only one recent case where the alleged influencer gave evidence in their case). Witness evidence can assist, as can medical evidence but these cases are not straightforward and are very fact sensitive. What may be simpler is to prove an allegation of want of knowledge and approval of the Will – essentially an allegation that the deceased did not know and understand what they were signing.