A legal battle has erupted over control of the $200 million estate of Abigail Kawananakoa after the Campbell Estate heiress suffered a recent stroke.
The skirmish is being fought by Kawananakoa’s longtime attorney, James Wright, and her longtime partner, Veronica Gail Worth, and revolves around whether the 91-year-old descendent of Queen Kapiolani and philanthropist of Native Hawaiian causes remains capable of handling her own financial affairs.
While Worth’s attorney, Michael Rudy, said his client’s only aim is to put Kawananakoa back in charge of her finances, Wright said he fears there’s a greater money grab in play that could seriously affect Kawananakoa’s plan to set up a charity on behalf of the Native Hawaiian people.
“Ms. Kawananakoa and her legacy need the protection of the court,” Wright said Thursday.
State Probate Judge Mark Browning on July 24 removed Kawananakoa from control of her trust and replaced her with Wright after Wright’s attorney, Frank Kanemitsu, wrote in a court filing that Kawananakoa suffered an acute stroke, leaving her “unable to meet essential requirements of physical health, safety, self-care or financial matters, even with appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.”
According to Wright, Kawananakoa was taken to The Queen’s Medical Center emergency room June 17 and treated in the neurointensive care unit for one week.
“I was standing in the emergency room when they called the major stroke team, and I visited her in the NICU several times every day for the following week,” he said.
The stroke, he said, had a profound effect on Kawananakoa.
“I have represented her for nearly 20 years, and spoke to her three hours before the stroke. She is not the same person,” Wright said.
But Worth, who possesses Kawananakoa’s health care power of attorney, believes her partner
of more than 20 years is competent enough to handle her own affairs, and she intends to prove it.
Rudy said a “renowned” panel of three psychological experts will be hired to examine Kawananakoa, and already the first has found her mentally competent. Another evaluation is being processed, he said, while a third is still being arranged.
Rudy said the truth is Kawananakoa suffered only a transient ischemic attack, also known as a ministroke.
“She was in the hospital only a few days under observation and released. She has rapidly improved since the hospital,” he said.
By challenging the court order, Worth is only carrying out her duty under the law as health care power of attorney, Rudy said.
Worth also objects to the fact that Kawananakoa was not given prior notice before the emergency court request to remove her from the trust, he said.
Rudy said he didn’t know why there was a rush to push Kawananakoa from being able to control her
“She is publicly known as a women of significant financial means,” he said. “Whoever controls the wealth controls a great deal of money.”
Wright said the move to remove Kawananakoa from the trust was not about him. It was about protecting her legacy and preserving the money that she wants to go for Native Hawaiian causes.
The heiress, who has financially supported a wide range of Native Hawaiian interests — from Iolani Palace to opposing the Thirty Meter Telescope — set up a foundation in 2001 to carry on her philanthropic vision using at least half of her fortune.
As for Worth, he said, she was largely absent during the three months before the stroke but attentive during the hospitalization. But afterward she seemed to be preoccupied with money and especially how much she would inherit, Wright said.
Wright said that on July 12 Worth attempted to have Kawananakoa transfer $30,000 into her own bank account.
“But it was blocked because Ms. Kawananakoa wasn’t able to make that decision,” he said. Doctors had already determined she didn’t have the capacity to manage her financial affairs, he said, and Worth knew that.
“Ms. Worth was very
distressed that she was going to have to pay her own Outrigger Club bill and credit card,” he said.
Wright said he previously talked with Kawananakoa about protecting her legacy and making sure her fortune is not looted like others have been.
“I feared Ms. Kawananakoa would need the protection of the court, and I was right,” he said.
But Rudy said that to suggest Worth would try to steal money from her companion is defamatory.
He said his client’s interest is not about gaining control of her partner’s fortune or diverting funds from Native Hawaiian causes. He said it is simply about returning Kawananakoa’s life to the way it used to be.
In addition, Rudy said Wright failed to tell the judge he was terminated by Kawananakoa in writing the day after he wrote up the emergency petition and before Browning made his ruling.
“We think that’s improper,” he said.
A status conference will be held on the matter in Browning’s courtroom Sept. 1.