Howard Hughes the billionaire aviator, industrialist and filmmaker died in April 5 1976, at the age of 70, without a will. Hughes’ assets were governed by the Summa Corporation, and were valued at more than $2 billion. At the time of his death no one was certain if Hughes had left a will, and as he resided in several cities probate was opened in Houston, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
Summa conducted an extensive search, but failed to discover a valid will. However an unsigned carbon copy of a 1954 will was presented to a probate court as the best available evidence of Hughes’ intentions. Summa argued that although a written will could not be found, Hughes’ wished to leave his whole fortune to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Florida.
Some days after Hughes’ death Spencer W. Kimball, president of the Mormon Church received a letter enclosing a an unwitnessed document dated March 19, 1968 and signed Howard R. Hughes. This document immediately raised suspicions because it was totally out of character for the increasingly neurotic Hughes to sign any document. However there was conjecture among a number of handwriting experts as to whether the document was in Hughes’ handwriting.
This document known as the Mormon will named a number of beneficiaries including Melvin Dummar. Dummar claimed that he picked up the hitchhiking Hughes in 1968, loaned him a quarter, and dropped him off, although Dummar later admitted that his story was false.
In a further complication Hughes had three maternal second cousins who under Texas intestacy law would inherit if there was no valid will. Twenty-three of Hughes’ maternal and paternal relatives combined to fight Summa. In June 1978, after a seven-month trial, a jury decided that Hughes did not author the Mormon will. As no valid will was discovered, the court awarded the Hughes estate to the billionaire’s surviving relatives appointing one of them to administer the estate.
The legal battle over the Hughes estate was not settled for 34 years. If Hughes had completed a will the expense and rancor that followed his death may have been avoided.