In what could be the last stage of a multi-year battle over the estate of an elderly heiress considered by some to be Hawaii’s last living monarch, a state court judge on Thursday appointed a conservator to oversee the financial affairs of Abigail Kawananakoa.
Lawyers for the 93-year-old Kawananakoa had said she had a sound mind and was capable to make decisions about her $215 million estate.
But after hearing witnesses and considering written testimony, Hawaii Circuit Court Judge James Ashford said, “It is clear to the Court that a conservator is appropriate and necessary.”
Hawaiian heiress Abigail Kawananakoa, left, and her wife, Veronica Gail Worth, appeared in a Honolulu courtroom in 2018. (Hawaii News Now via AP, Pool)
Kawananakoa’s estate has been a matter of great public interest because Kawananakoa has long been a major supporter of Native Hawaiian causes and vowed in 2007 to leave her fortune to benefit Native Hawaiians. Financial decisions she makes now could therefore have a significant impact on future generations.
The question was whether Kawananakoa might waste her fortune unless she has someone with the power to oversee it. While Kawanakoa’s attorneys, Bruce Voss and John Ferry III, argued that the elderly heiress was capable of managing her affairs, Ashford rejected their claim.
“Ms. Kawananakoa’s property is currently being inappropriately wasted and dissipated and will continue to be wasted or dissipated unless management is provided by a conservator,” Ashford said in his opinion.
Voss did not return calls for comment.
Jim Wright, a Honolulu attorney who has served as trustee for Kawananakoa’s estate, said he was pleased with the decision.
Wright said he hopes the trust assets will be preserved to eventually benefit the Hawaiian people, as Kawananakoa has wanted. At the same time, Wright expressed mixed feelings about the judge finding Kawananakoa lacked the capacity to manage her affairs, which will now be overseen by a conservator who has yet to be named.
“I’m sad for my friend,” Wright said. “I have kept my promises to her. And I look forward to being relieved of further responsibility.”
Asked if he felt vindicated, Wright said, “No, I want to know how do I go to get my reputation back after two and half years of a professional campaign of defamation and intimidation that hurt both me and my family.”
In his opinion, Ashford pointed not only to the expert opinion of Dr. David Trader, a geriatric psychiatrist from California who was called in to evaluate Kawananakoa, but also to Kawananakoa’s own testimony, which was taken behind closed doors at the insistence of her attorneys.
Ashford did not say how Kawananakoa’s testimony undermined her own case.
“Ms. Kawananakoa is a charming and gracious lady, in the best sense of the word,” Ashford wrote. “She has a great sense of humor and is tremendously endearing.
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “the Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that for reasons other than age Ms. Kawananakoa is unable to manage her property and business affairs effectively because of an impairment in her ability to receive and evaluate information or to make or communicate decisions.”
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