A judge on Monday appointed First Hawaiian Bank as the new trustee to oversee Abigail Kawananakoa’s $220 million estate after determining the heiress no longer has the mental capacity to make significant changes how her money will be distribute when she dies.
“This is not an easy decision in many different ways,” state Circuit Court Judge Robert Mark Browning said before announcing his decision to replace current trustee Jim Wright, Kawananakoa’s former attorney.
For now, Browning’s decision ends a legal battle over what input, if any, the 92-year-old Kawananakoa has into her financial affairs. The legal fight began a little more than a year ago when she suffered a stroke. She was hospitalized and Wright become trustee. But in the days that followed, Wright was fired by the aging philanthropist, who said she wanted her wife, Veronica Gail Worth, and three other people as trustees.
Browning determined that while Kawananakoa could remove Wright as trustee, she did not have the ability to make complex financial decisions such as choosing a new trustee.
The judge’s decision stems in part from the findings of Dr. David Trader, a geriatric psychiatrist from California who was called in to evaluate Kawananakoa.
Kawananakoa, who sat through the two-hour hearing hold her dog and sitting next to Worth, at times had trouble hearing and following the case. After the hearing, Kawananakoa leaned toward her attorneys to ask them what happened.
“There’s good news and bad news,” whispered her attorney, Michael Lilly.
Lilly said a decision on whether to appeal the judge’s decision has not been made.
“We’re disappointed that her trustees weren’t approved,” Lilly said. “Removal was the right thing.”
Wright said afterward he believes the judge has positioned the case for a settlement.
“In any event Ms. Kawananakao’s legacy is protected and her wish to benefit Native Hawaiians will be fulfilled. I am very grateful for that,” Wright said.
Kawananakoa, who is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty and goes by the honorific “Princess,” is heir to the James Campbell estate. She has donated to Native Hawaiian causes, including the preservation of Iolani Palace, which was built in the late 19th century by her great-uncle, King David Kalakaua. She owns extensive real estate holdings, horses and horse breeding and training facilities and about 13 percent of the shares in the James Campbell Corp.
She has long said that she wanted to leave much of her fortune to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries when she dies and in 2001 she set up a foundation trust to do that. About $100 million is expected to go to Native Hawaiian causes.
Roseanne Goo, an attorney representing the foundation, cried as she urged the judge to consider what is right for Kawananakoa. Goo said she and others “hold her in this special place because she is a vulnerable kupuna.”
“Ms. Kawananakoa is a person who is revered in this community,” said Browning, referring to her as a “champion” for Hawaii and its people.
The judge also chided attorneys during the hearing, telling one there were “no clean hands” on either side of the case, and criticized what he said were personal attacks between opposing attorneys when the most important person in the case was an elderly woman.
“None of these attacks advance us toward resolving the legitimate disputes that have been posed to the court to decide,” Browning said.
He urged the attorneys to try to work together.
“It is easy for us to focus on our differences but I urge you all to now focus on what you all share in common which is compassion and care for the welfare of Ms. Kawananakoa,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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