Howard Hughes – the billionaire whose handwritten will was contested

Howard Hughes was one of America’s most pre-eminent business magnates in the 20th century, having become a Hollywood film producer in the 1920s specialising in big-budget controversial films. He was also a keen aviation enthusiasts, setting many world air speed records and forming the Hughes Aircraft corporation.

Throughout his life, Hughes amassed a fortune worth $1.5 billion, which is equivalent to more than $6 billion in today’s terms. He lived his later life as something of a recluse, controlled by his obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic pain. He spent his last ten years living in hotels around the world until he died in April 1976, at which point he weighed less than 90 pounds and his body could only be identified using fingerprints. An autopsy declared that the cause of death was kidney failure.

Three weeks after Hughes died, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found a handwritten will on a desk in their Salt Lake City church. It stated that Howard Hughes had left $1.56 billion to various charities as well as money split between some family members and company aides. A legal trial ensued, lasting seven months, after which the will was rejected by the court as a forgery, declaring that Howard Hughes had officially died intestate.

The legal battle lasted until 1983, seven years after his death, at which point his $2.5 billion estate was split amongst twenty-two of his cousins. However, the personal animosity and bad feeling which pervaded the case has continued long after, with many people still being convinced that the original court decision regarding the handwritten will should have been overturned. Whether the original will was genuine or not will probably never be known, but it should be a lesson to all of us that it is vital that every responsible person should have a will drawn up professionally, in order that these events do not happen to them.

It is not just billionaires who need worry, either. Thousands of people die intestate every year, and almost everybody has some form of assets which need distributing. If you die without a will, you might find that your family and friends and other loved ones are left without proper financial provision — something which most people would not want. Alternatively, you might find that your assets end up going to somebody whom you would not wish them to. Either way, the importance of a well-drafted will is evident.

So don’t follow the example of Howard Hughes – who, as a billionaire, could probably have afforded to have a professionally will drawn up by a decent lawyer. Make sure you get a professionally drafted will – and review it regularly in line with your changing circumstances. The alternative is to risk a damaging and potentially very expensive legal will challenge – arguments over which could split your family permanently.

You are never too young to write a will, either. Anyone can die at any time and we never know when it will happen, so it is always a good idea to see a specialist solicitor in order to have a professional will drawn up. It’s not a painful or expensive experience, and it will give you the ultimate peace of mind that your loved ones will be cared for after your death and that your wishes will be adhered to. For many people, it is your final wish and your legacy that will live on through your will.

The writer, Tim Bishop is senior partner of UK solicitors, Bonallack and Bishop. For specialist legal advice on any aspect of executor disputes or inheritance claims, call them now on FREEPHONE 0800 1404544 or to find out more about how to contest a will visit their specialist website at

Tim Bishop
Having qualified as a Solicitor in 1986, Tim Bishop is a legal entrepreneur who owns leading law firm Bonallack & Bishop Solicitors. Find out why you should choose Bonallack & Bishop Solicitors: Visit
Tim Bishop
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