Another Rich Guy with No Will – Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes’ Will

Howard Hughes, Jr. (1905976), an aviator, film producer, and manufacturer, died a multibillionaire. Unmarried and childless, Hughes left no clear heir. He had spent his final years as a mentally ill recluse and no one knew his intentions for his fortune. The fierce battle over the Hughes estate became a public spectacle involving dueling handwriting experts and neuropathology. The fight illustrates the difficulty of disproving hoaxes in the days before advanced forensic testing.

Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, to a mining engineer who devised an oil-drill bit that revolutionized the American oil industry. The family became wealthy, but the early death of his parents had a profound effect on Hughes. Always withdrawn, he became a hypochondriac fearful of germs. He ended his education in 1924 to enter the world of business. Not content with inheriting 75% of his father’s tool company fortune, Hughes bought out the other 25% previously dispersed among relatives. The agreements with his relatives were bitterly arrived at and caused a permanent rift. After hiring executives to run his business, Hughes moved to Los Angeles and became a film producer. In 1933, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and it grew into one of the most profitable aircraft production companies in the world. Obsessive-compulsive by nature, Hughes became ever more eccentric as the years passed. Additionally, after sustaining serious injuries in an airplane crash, he became addicted to the painkiller codeine.

Hughes eventually refused to see people other than his closest business executives. Living behind closed curtains, he became best known to the public for his uncut hair and long fingernails. In November 1970, Hughes moved to the Bahamas to avoid taxes. He never returned to the United States. The last six years of his life were those of an itinerant exile, moving from one luxurious hotel to another. In his last years, Hughes refused medical treatment and did not eat properly. He became an emaciated wreck, weighing only ninety-four pounds at the time of his death. He denied his aides the right to tend him, until he finally lapsed into unconsciousness. They then flew him in an air ambulance to Houston, but he was dead of kidney failure by the time the plane landed, on April 5, 1976.

Hughes’ death set off a stampede for his fortune. The assets of Summa Corporation, under which all of his businesses were governed, were valued at more than $2 billion. Probate was opened in Houston, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. No one was certain if Hughes had left a will. George Francom, a personal aide, later testified that Hughes once mentioned he had drawn up a handwritten will. But when Francom asked about its whereabouts, the ever-suspicious Hughes refused to tell him where it was.