Eccentric businessman and aviation magnate Howard Hughes died in 1976 and reportedly had no will in place, so there was a rush on his estate, which was estimated at $2 billion, or about $9 billion in today’s money. So, what happened to Howard Hughes’ money?
Long story short, after hundreds of people came forward to claim inheritance—and after 40 wills purportedly written by the Howard Hughes Corporation heir were thrown out—Hughes’ money was split among his mother’s and father’s descendants, according to The New York Times.
But amid that confusion came what The Washington Post called an “heir raid” with the atmosphere of a circus…
More than 600 alleged relatives tried to get a piece of Hughes estate.
After Hughes’ death, more than 600 “alleged wives, sons, daughters, first, second, third, fourth, and fifth cousins” lined up in a courtroom in Houston, Texas, to claim a share of his estate, according to a 1981 Washington Post article. At the time, probate judge Pat Gregory had already determined that 16 first cousins or their estates would receive 71.5 percent of Hughes’ estate.
The newspaper also reported that Gregory “held his hands about two feet apart” to show the size of the stack of letters he had received from other people professing themselves to be long-lost relatives of the Hughes Aircraft Company founder.
A Hollywood actress named Terry Moore, for example, said that she married Hughes in 1949 in international waters off California and that their marriage records were dumped overboard. Gregory dismissed her claim.
A woman who said her name was Alyce Hovsepian Hughes said she married Hughes in 1946 and took on the name Jean Peters at his request, Jean Peters being the name of Hughes’ second wife, whom he divorced in 1971. Gregory dismissed her claim, too.
Another woman—“the left side of her curly hair was blond, the right side black, apparently a combination of two different wigs,” as the Post—claimed to be Hughes’ mother, even though the woman was in her early 60s and Hughes’ actual mother, Allene Gano Hughes, died in 1922 at age 39.
Ultimately, the Harris County Probate Court jury declared that sisters Chris Roberts, Beth DePould, and Barbara Cameron—three granddaughters of Hughes’ uncle Rupert—would each get 6.3 percent of the estate and that Avis Hughes McIntyre and the estate of her brother Rush would each get 4.7 percent—Avis and Rush being two Rupert’s stepchildren.
One man claimed he was entitled to $156 million of Hughes’ money.
According to The New York Times, a man named Melvin Dummar—who claimed to have driven a hitchhiking Hughes to Las Vegas in 1979—produced a handwritten and error-ridden will showing that Hughes left him 1/16th of his estate, or around $156 million.
Dummar became the subject of national attention, and his story even inspired the 1980 film Melvin and Howard, but his will was determined to be forged, and Dummar died in 2018 without receiving any money from the estate.
A lawyer says Hughes’ estate confusion a “cautionary tale.”
In a 2019 blog post, estate lawyer Gordon Fischer called the drama over Hughes’ estate a “cautionary tale.”
“While most of us will never have an estate valued even close to the likes of Hughes, we can be smart with what we do have and make certain what we choose is dispersed to whom we choose, when we choose,” Fischer wrote. “There’s no need for your assets to be tied up in red tape or be dispersed in a way that’s not fitting with your wishes.”