HONOLULU — A 93-year-old heiress doesn’t need a guardian to take care of her, but a hearing will be held to determine whether she needs a conservator to oversee her $215 million trust, a judge ruled Friday in an ongoing battle over her wealth.
Abigail Kawananakoa’s fortune has been tied up in a court case since her 2017 stroke. Her longtime lawyer, Jim Wright, argued the stroke left her impaired, and he stepped in to assume the role of trustee.
Kawananakoa said she’s fine, fired Wright and married her partner of 20 years, Veronica Gail Worth.
Kawananakoa inherited her wealth as the great-granddaughter of James Campbell, an Irish businessman who made his fortune as a sugar plantation owner and one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.
Native Hawaiians consider her a princess because she’s a descendant of the family that ruled the islands before the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893.
They have been closely watching the legal wrangling over her trust because they are concerned about the fate of a foundation she set up to benefit Hawaiian causes.
Last year, Judge R. Mark Browning ruled Kawananakoa lacks the mental capacity to manage her trust, appointed First Hawaiian Bank to serve as trustee and removed Wright.
Wright had appointed three prominent Native Hawaiian leaders to serve as board members for the $100 million foundation Kawananakoa created in 2001. The foundation is participating in the court battle because it is a beneficiary of her trust.
Board members of her foundation and ex-employees say her wife is manipulating her. Lawyers for the couple dispute that.
Petitions for a guardian and a conservator come “from a place of sincere respect and reverence, honoring Ms. Kawananakoa’s lifelong commitment to the Native Hawaiian people,” said David Kauila Kopper, an attorney for the foundation.
She attempted to change her trust last year to ensure her wife receives $40 million and all her personal property, according to court records.
The couple’s lawyers said Friday that Kawananakoa is well-cared for and should be able to do what she wants with her money.
The allegations that she can’t take care of herself or her affairs, is “speculation of the worst kind,” said her attorney, Bruce Voss.
“Just because Ms. Kawananakoa has a great deal of assets and just because there’s a lot of people who think they could do a better job of spending her money than she does, does not mean that Ms. Kawananakoa has lost the basic right to decide what she wants to do with her money and property,” Voss said.
Kawananakoa watched the hearing with the couple’s Chihuahua on her lap, while seated next to Worth.
“People don’t like Ms. Worth; maybe it’s her age, maybe it’s the same-sex relationship, maybe it’s the amount of money other people could have,” Worth’s attorney, Michael Rudy said.
If Kawananakoa could take the stand and testify, “she would tell you ‘Just leave me alone,’” Rudy said.
She may have to do exactly that during a future evidentiary hearing to determine whether there should be a conservator. Browning said she will need to undergo a medical examination before the hearing.
It’s a “sad situation,” Kawananakoa said outside the courtroom. “My heritage dictates that I must take care of the Hawaiian people.”