The wild case of a $50 million donation that could be the largest in Panama’s history
Sometimes, truth is far more entertaining than fiction. These days, we’re enjoying media reports on the outrageous case of the disposition of multi-millionaire Wilson “Chuck” Lucom’s estate—and his third wife’s challenge to it.
Chuck died in 2006 at the age of 88. Before his death, he was not known as a philanthropist. Indeed, according to his family, the only contribution to charity he made during his life was $100 to buy raffle tickets from a step-granddaughter.
Yet after his death, Chuck is responsible for what could be the largest charitable donation in Panama’s history. His will leaves as much as $50 million to poor children’s charities throughout that country. In his will, created in secret a year before his death, Chuck sets out a plan to fix the malnutrition problem of Panama’s children. He proposes that seeds be given to volunteers who agree to donate idle land; the harvests would go to hungry children.
Chuck also was not known for his love of children. He never had any of his own. And he apparently did not seem to care much for his third wife’s adult children.
According to Richard Lehman, Chuck’s Florida-based attorney and his designated executor, Chuck would joke and laugh about the reactions his family members would have when they saw his will. Lehman reportedly has said: “I don’t know if he was moved more by the disgust of his wife’s children or his concern for poor children. It was probably a mixture of both.”
In his 20s, Chuck served as an aide to secretary of state, Edward Stettinius Jr., under the democratic Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. Later, he proved to be very conservative and funded anti-Communist groups. He helped create the watchdog group, Accuracy in Media.
Chuck also wasn’t afraid to voice far-reaching opinions, some of which may be seen as eccentric. For example, he strongly supported the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a way to correct the world’s problems. He also said that the key to catching Osama Bin Laden was to offer a large enough bounty for his capture. Chuck even considered donating his assets to create this large bounty.
Chuck accumulated his fortune through marriages. Much of it came when his second wife, Virginia Willys, died in 1981. Virginia was the daughter of an automotive tycoon from Ohio. Willys Jeeps were used throughout WWII because of the jeep’s capabilities to go off-road and its easy maintenance.
Chuck married his third and last wife, Hilda, a year after wife number two had died. In 1990, he sold his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., for $14.3 million to a relative of the king of Saudi Arabia and moved to Panama.
Hilda is contesting Chuck’s will even though she’s slated to receive $240,000 a year for the rest of her life and apparently has no need even for that sum. Hilda is the independently wealthy head of the Arias family. The Ariases are members of Panama’s rabiblancos, or “white elite,” and have produced two presidents in Panama.
Chuck’s will did give one-time payments to Hilda’s children in sums ranging from $50,000 to $200,000.
Another $1 million was set-aside for the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where Chuck was treated for cancer.
But his largest asset—a 7,000 acre oceanfront ranch in Panama—is to be sold with the assets going to the poor. This last bequest is a slap in the face to Hilda and her children, as Chuck bought that ranch from the Arias family.
Chuck set up his $50 million trust for his children’s charity fund just days before he died. He’s sited it in St. Kitts and Nevis, a Caribbean tax haven where Chuck had obtained citizenship to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
Now, Hilda is disputing whether he was coherent when the trust was established; but, according to others who saw Chuck in his last days, he was.
A Florida court-appointed administrator did find that Chuck’s lawyer Lehman improperly dealt with some of Chuck’s Florida accounts and took $650,000 from the estate. Lehman says he used the money to hire attorneys to defend himself from criminal allegations in Panama.
In addition, the court criticized Lehman for not disclosing to the court that he owed Chuck $500,000 at the time of his death.
Criminal charges accused Lehman of causing Chuck’s death; the Arias family even claimed that he’d euthanized Chuck. According to a website that Lehman apparently maintains (www.lucomchildren.com), he was falsely charged in Panama with murder and more than a dozen other crimes. He also claims to have been held under armed guard for 15 hours in an airport police detention center even after the charges had been dropped.
Although there are no charges pending now, Lehman says he fears visiting Panama because other charges may be brought. He has countersued the Arias family, accusing them of using the family-run newspaper, El Panamá América, to libel him.
Two lower courts in Panama have upheld Chuck’s will. The case is currently in Panama’s Supreme Court system and a decision may not be made for months, possibly years.
NOTE: The facts in this article are compiled from a number of sources, including articles in The New York Times, Palm Beach Post, and The Independent.