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Doris Duke – Billionaire Heiress and Victim of Elder Abuse

Doris Duke Estate Plan

While almost everyone has heard of Duke University, many are not familiar with the family who gave the prestigious school its name – in particular, the infamous heiress Doris Duke. For those of you who have not heard the name, or may need a reminder, Doris Duke was the daughter of tobacco industry titan James Duke. Born in 1912, Doris inherited her father’s fortune at the young age of 12 years old. While Doris responsibly managed her father’s wealth over the course of her life, she allowed her vast inheritance to fall into the wrong hands at the very end of her life. The story of Doris Duke’s estate is both a lesson in diligent estate planning and the risk of financial elder abuse as you age.

Heiress to nearly $100 million in the early 20th century, Doris found herself dubbed “million dollar baby” and “richest little girl in the world” by popular news media. As Doris entered adulthood, she found herself one of the most sought after socialites, alongside girls such as Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Unlike Ms. Hutton, Doris shunned public attention. Throughout her life, the media eagerly followed Ms. Duke’s extravagant lifestyle, world travels, and numerous affairs. But just like billionaire heiress Huguette Clark, Doris avoided public attention and became more reclusive as the years passed. During her lifetime, Doris traveled the world, communed with Indian Mystics and Witch Doctors, wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, got married and divorced twice, and developed  a passion for nature and the arts. Ms. Duke also maintained a staff of over 200 people to manage her five homes – a Park avenue penthouse, a Beverly Hills mansion, a palace in Hawaii named “Shangri-La,” a summer home in Newport, and a 2,000 acre farm in New Jersey. 

Charitable Trust and Will

Doris inherited nearly $100 million dollars in assets upon her father’s death in 1924. Over the course of her lifetime, she grew her inheritance to over 1 billion dollars. Doris was a prudent and responsible businesswoman, and as such put a plan in place for her legacy long before her death. Her detailed will gave several million to friends and family, with the remainder going to a charitable trust. With over 1 billion in assets, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation would become one of the world’s richest foundations. Ms. Duke specified in her estate plan that the foundation support environmental causes, prevention of cruelty to children and animals, medical research, and the performing arts. Her original will named a longtime friend and physician as executor, to ensure her wishes were carried out as she intended. As an estate planning attorney, I would give her original plan an A+ for specificity, clarity, minimizing taxes, and choosing a responsible executor. Unfortunately, Doris changed her estate plan just several months before her death in 1993. There was one significant change: Doris replaced her current executor with a man named Bernard Lafferty. She had known Bernard for six years, during which he served as her butler and closest confidant. As executor, Bernard would have a significant role in the governance of her charitable foundation, and most importantly receive in excess of $10 million. 

Elder Abuse and Will Contest

Bernard Lafferty came into Doris’s life as a result of an incident that occurred many years prior. In 1940, Doris gave birth to a premature baby girl who died shortly thereafter.  At the age of 73, she met a woman named Chandi whom she believed to be the reincarnation of her deceased child. At 75, she legally adopted 32 year old Chandi, bestowing numerous generous gifts upon her, including a million dollar home in Hawaii. Chandi and her boyfriend James, who served as Ms. Duke’s bodyguard, played a prominent role in Duke’s life for the years that followed, during which time Chandi introduced Bernard Lafferty into Doris’s household. For six years, Lafferty served as Ms. Duke’s butler and became her closest friend. Unfortunately, this was also a period of controversy and suffering for Duke. In 1990, at the age of 78, Doris became mysteriously ill at her Hawaii home. Lafferty convinced her that Chandi and her boyfriend, James, were conspiring against her. Fearful, Duke decided she and Lafferty should relocate to her Beverly Hills home. There she reportedly sank into depression, and turned the full management of her affairs over to Lafferty. In April of 1993, in a state of physical and mental decline, Doris removed the executor of her will, her friend and former physician, Harry Demopoulos and gave complete control of her estate to Lafferty. During the summer that followed, Doris was in and out of the hospital, often on multiple painkillers, and isolated from outside contact. There was also a report of a choking incident in which Lafferty refused to call an ambulance. After months of suffering, Doris Duke died on October 28, 1993. 

Will Contest

Will contests involving elder abuse are typically brought for two reasons.  The first is if someone believes the testator (person who Will belongs to) lacked mental capacity at the time the will was signed. In California, the probate code specifically states that a will is not legally valid if signed by a testator who lacks mental capacity. The second main reason for a will contest involving elder abuse is when someone believes that the testator was subject to undue influence at the time the will was signed. Undue influence is a very serious legal allegation which California law defines as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results and inequity.” Evidence of both were presented in the will contest of Doris Duke. Following her death, the former executor of her state, Dr. Demopoulos, contested the validity of her decision to change executors, believing that Doris was not of right mind when she executed the new will, and was a victim of elder abuse by Lafferty. Three years, 40 lawyers, and $10 million dollars in legal expenses later, Lafferty eventually agreed to take a payout in exchange for renouncing his seat on the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation board, and stepping down as executor. 

Doris Duke was put in a difficult position at the end of her life. She no doubt felt isolated and alone, and likely wondered who her real friends were. She was a smart businesswoman who had managed her financial affairs prudently throughout her life. Had she not met Chandi or Bernard Lafferty, I would like to believe she would not have altered her will, and a legal battle would not have ensued. So what can we learn from Doris’s crucial mistake? 

I think the lesson of Doris Duke’s story applies to the children, grandchildren, and close friends of elders. As informed and responsible family and community members, we can watch for  signs that elder abuse may be occurring, and offer assistance when necessary. There’s no clear cut way to avoid elder abuse, but awareness is the first step.

If you have questions about elder abuse or the validity of a will, contact my Elder Law Firm at 925-322-1795 for a consultation.

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5 Responses
  1. observer

    Doris Duke was also born male, transgendered at a young age to female, prior to the appearance of secondary male traits in puberty. This practice is done traditionally by (insane) "elite" families – a Luciferian practice. Doris was a high ranking satanist and was murdered in a ritual by her houseman the night of "her" death. Sordid, wicked…but true.

    1. Matthew Talbot

      not only would it not have been questioned, it’s likely nothing would have occurred in the first place!

  2. G. Desjardins

    After watching the movie, I was fascinated by how down to earth this rich person seemed to be, as we should all be irregardless of our financial situation. I will be reading a book on her so as to verify how truthful the movie is. As far as the butler goes, I’m not sure about him…? Irregardless, she should be honoured for her immense generosity. Other rich people should look to emulating her.