Abigail Kawananakoa is likely to testify for the first time in the court battle over her $215 million estate next month, but her attorneys want the hearing closed to the public.
The three-day hearing set to begin March 9 was ordered to determine whether the Campbell Estate heiress is capable of handling her own financial affairs without the help of a court-appointed conservator.
Attorneys on both sides have been sparring over a number of critical issues related to the hearing, including whether the 93-year-old Kawananakoa will have to testify. It would be the first time since she suffered a stroke in June 2017.
“She is the best evidence the court has to determine the appropriateness of having a conservator for her protection,” said Roseanne Goo, attorney for the Abigail KK Kawananakoa Foundation.
The upcoming hearing is the latest in the saga over the fate of an estate put into question after Kawananakoa suffered her stroke and her then-attorney, James Wright, as trustee, petitioned the court for control of the estate.
But Veronica Gail Worth, Kawananakoa’s life partner of more than 20 years and now her wife, challenged the declaration and insisted Kawananakoa is mentally capable of handling her own affairs.
Worth, who has changed her last name to Kawananakoa, is seeking to return control of the trust to Kawananakoa.
Following months of hearings and fact-finding, Probate Court Judge R. Mark Browning ruled in 2018 that Kawananakoa was not mentally capable of changing or revoking her trust, or of firing and replacing its trustee. He appointed First Hawaiian Bank as successor trustee, pending its acceptance.
But the legal challenges didn’t end, and ongoing mediation has proven unsuccessful.
In October, Browning ordered the hearing to determine if a conservator is needed to oversee Kawananakoa’s financial affairs outside the trust. He also ordered an updated medical evaluation after remarking in court that the woman appeared to be in good health.
The new evaluation will be conducted by Dr. David Trader, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, the same doctor who examined Kawananakoa after her stroke and concluded she lacked financial capacity and wasn’t able to make complex decisions, although he did say she had testamentary capacity — or about the same level of mental acuity needed to make out a will.
Circuit Judge James Ashford will preside over the hearing in a handoff that was dictated by probate court policy.
Kawananakoa’s attorneys have filed a motion asking that the hearing be closed, arguing that the materials discussed in the proceeding will include “confidential, highly private and sensitive medical and financial information.”
In his motion, attorney Bruce Voss argued that the information discussed at the hearing will be invasive and threatens to pierce his client’s right to privacy.
“Although she is a party to these proceedings, (Kawananakoa) certainly did not initiate them, and her participation in them is not truly consensual. By contesting that she is in fact competent to manage her own affairs, (Kawananakoa) did not waive her right to privacy – nor did she voluntarily place her medical and financial condition at issue,” Voss wrote.
It was unclear Friday whether anyone would contest the hearing’s closure.
As for whether Kawananakoa will have to testify, it’s looking like she will after Ashford issued an order Monday saying he sees “no basis to conclude that Abigail Kawananakoa has any privilege or other legal right to refuse to testify if she is served with a subpoena.”
Attorney Megan Kau, who represents three former Kawananakoa employees, said Friday she plans to subpoena the heiress to compel her to testify.
Kau has also argued for an opportunity to submit additional evidence at the hearing — one of the yet-to-be-determined issues scheduled to be discussed at a Feb. 24 conference with Browning.
In a letter filed with the court on Monday, Kau noted that she subpoenaed records from Hawaii National Bank, where the Kawananakoas have a joint account, and found $2.3 million in transactions over the last couple of years that indicate Veronica Kawananakoa has diverted the vast majority of the funds for her own use.
“All the money going in is going to Abigail Kawananakoa and all the money going out is going to Worth,” she said.
Kau said not only do the records suggest that more evidence is needed in the hearing but the psychiatrist Trader should be informed of the joint account to help him decide if she is capable of handling her own money.
“It’s extremely alarming,” Goo remarked.
In response to Kau’s letter, attorney Michael Rudy told the court that Kau’s interpretation of the account records is wrong and misleading. Rather than diverting funds, he said, Veronica has been lending her partner money for expenses since before 2017.
In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in May of last year, Abigail Kawananakoa volunteered that she was broke and essentially has had no money for two years.
Court records indicate, however, that she receives enough funds from her estate to take care of her monthly needs.
In that same interview — and in a video distributed to the media a few months earlier — Kawananakoa said she was fully capable of handling her own finances.
Kawananakoa’s nontrust assets include her ranching and quarter horse operations, which consist of a 15-acre horse ranch in Nuevo, Calif., and a smaller one in Washington state. The Nuevo ranch, called Lakeview Quarter Horse Farm, is in rural Riverside County and has 22 employees.
A member of the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame, Kawananakoa is a veteran breeder and quarter horse owner who has produced racing earners of more than $10 million.
But her horse operations have been losing $4 million a year, her attorneys have acknowledged in court.
First Hawaiian Bank, which is set to take over from Wright as successor trustee, said it wants a conservator to evaluate the equestrian operations and file a plan for liquidation of assets.
According to court filings, the bank also wants the conservator to prepare and file amended federal and state tax returns, taking care of Kawananakoa’s gift tax debts and other liabilities.