Long before the Estate of Vincent Astor was the subject of signicant estate litigation in 1959 or Brooke Astor trust and estate litigation issues brought criminal charges for will and trust issues and caught national headlines Thomas Patrick Morris was jailed for fraud in claiming to have been the child of her brother and have a will making him entitled to the assets of her estate. Ella Von Echtzel Wendal a wealthy Fifth Avenue heiress and last child in the Wendel family that had accumulated a vast real estate empire. Interestingly her grandfather was the step brother of John Jacob Astor and was advised to buy New York real estate. In a detailed story claimed to be the sole heir of the estate worth estimated at as much as $100 million of dollars in 1931. (although some say above $100 million estate and others say a range of $30 million up to that it would be very large even without inflation making that considerably larger in todays money) The estate was represented by John Marshall Harlan II a future Supreme Court Justice. With some good litigation ability he exposed Mr. Morris story and will as frauds for which was subsequently arrested arrested and jailed and also defended the will against around 2300 who filed claims against the estate. Nearly all of the claimants were fraudulent although he eventually negotiated a settlement with 9 distant relatives note mentioned in the will who collectively received $2.125m during the 1933 settlement in the New York Surrogate Court which resolves Probate Litigation and all disputed matters. The remainder of the money went to various charities as provided by her will despite some challenges to her testamentary capacity.
Her brother John Gotlieb Wendel prevented his six sisters from marrying other than one later in life since they did not want to split up the real estate and have less in the family.
There was a book written about this case with the title Forgery, Perjury and an Enormous Fortune 2303 Claimants to the 1931 Ella Wendel Estate there is also an online Time Magazine article regarding this case.
An interesting article regarding the family and the case can also be viewed by clicking here. One interesting note is that the New York Probate Litigation in the surrogate's court and related litigation concerning estate related matters appeared in the New York Times 67 times in 1931 alone showing that high profile probate litigation and probate settlement issues have been heavily covered for nearly 80 years now. Recently there have been a lot of these types of cases concerning celebrity or high profile indviduals with the just starting Michael Jackson situation in which custody is in dispute and some aspects may be contested if the no contest clause of the trust would not apply as has already asked for an interpretation regarding that, Brooke Astor criminal litigation case is ongoing with the direct trust and estate litigation cases likely to follow. The James Brown probate and trust litigation issues were finally settled earlier this year and Anna Nicole Smith still has her estate suing the estate of her much older husband Mr. Marshall which has been going on nearly 15 years now despite the death of all parties initially involved and last years estate settlement of Luciano Pavarotti's among many other celebrity trust and estate litigation issues. The media coverage or existence of this high profile estate and trust litigation is unlikely to end anytime soon either. There is already an article of tension regarding the children of Walter Cronkite and his companion the last four years the sister of singer Carly Simon.