On Old Ladies And Legal Incompetence


Recently, we’ve seen a spate of older women who, others charge, are being taken advantage of by gigolos/fortune hunters/unscrupulous scoundrels. From the embattled L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettancourt to reclusive copper scion Huguette Clark — when is someone “leaglly incompetent?”

These cases almost always leave us feeling gross, whether it’s reading about Bettencourt’s daughter’s accusations that her mother is in the thrall of a gigolo, or Brooke Astor‘s son making his senile mother live in squalor, or the unscrupulous money manager apparently trying to get the 104-year-old Clark to change her will in his favor. And do we need to mention Anna Nicole Smith’s ugly legal battle with the children of her ancient husband J. Howard Marshall? When is “legal incompetence” for someone’s protection — and when does it simply become a weapon?

The problem is, how to determine it? The Times addressed the question during the case of Mrs. Astor’s son, saying, “The bar for establishing testamentary capacity is set fairly low. The person in question needs to have a general understanding of her assets, know to whom bequests are normally left, and be able to state what she wants to do and explain why.” However, in the same piece, the president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys conceded that “capacity is fluid,” and that legal decisions can come down to whether someone was lucid “on that day and in that moment.” Elder lawyers, apparently, increasingly turn to videotape for will-signings and other such sessions to avert exactly these situations.

Bettercourt’s situation is even more complicated. Her daughter charges that she’s been manipulated out of $1 billion in gifts by the accused gigolo François-Marie Banier, and has charged the man of the world and photographer with abus de faiblesse, or exploiting weakness. But people make bad decisions all the time, even fall in love with terrible people — can you qualify poor judgment, or for that matter vulnerability? Indeed, friends of Bettencourt suggest that while unconventional, it’s just…a friendship. According to one such acquaintance, who talked to Vanity Fair,

The secret of their friendship is that Banier treats her normally, without deference….[giving him the money] isrational but not reasonable. It’s rational because it makes sense to her-she wants to do it and she can afford it. It may not seem reasonable, but that’s how it is


Karl Lagerfeld, for what it’s worth, agrees, telling the mag,

What I think is horrible is the daughter-you don’t put your mother, in her late 80s, in a scandal like this. For me, that’s unforgivable. Even if you’re estranged from your mother, you don’t do it. Her mother is allowed to give her money to whomever she wants. There’s enough for everybody, so why not-if it makes her happy? I think her life was boring. And it was more fun with François-Marie.… I see him, really, as a victim. Getting an expensive gift doesn’t make you a thief. If she gave it, she wanted to give it. Giving is a pleasure like receiving

Diane Von Furstenberg lends her voice to the fashionable chorus.

They have an amitié amoureuse, a love-friendship…She really likes him and wants to help him, but it’s not like a gigolo and a rich lady at all. It’s not a young man and an old woman. It’s two mature people…You think he manipulates her? It’s she who manipulates. She likes to provoke him. They tease each other. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, like you are with people who stimulate your mind. But she is the one who does exactly what she wants. She’s a totally spoiled, rich little girl who is still a rich little girl, and who has been paying her friends all her life, as very rich little girls do. But there’s nothing pathetic about Liliane Bettencourt. She’s incredibly well preserved and well informed. She has a twinkle in her eye. She’s not sad. She’s sharp. This is a woman who is anything but a victim

The fact that Banier has been involved with other wealthy patrons, is considered manipulative by many, or that the whole case is now steeped in possible political chicanery right on through the presidency, is almost a moot point: all that matters is Bettencourt’s competence when she gifted her friend with jewels, trips, antiques and cash. And in the meantime, her friendship with Banier is, on the orders of legal counsel, suspended. She is also deeply estranged from the daughter who’s suing him. In short, she seems to have gotten the short end of the stick however you shake it — and largely for the crime of being 88 and wealthy.

The Bettencourt Affair, Part II: The Gilded Friendship [
Vanity Fair]
The Tricky Question Of Competence [NY Times]
104-Year-Old Heiress Huguette Clark’s Sad, Secret Life [NY Post]

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