Further information on Kin's range of probate services and how our professionals can help you with your work. Read more >
Further information on the work we do and how it might affect you.
HAVE YOU RECEIVED A LETTER?
Further information on tracing services we offer.
A businessman vows to give away a billion to charity. Another family contests a £8m bequest. The rich are getting richer, and their children all want a slice of the pie. But do wealthy dynasties always make for happy heirs? We offer some cautionary tales
For 150 years, the Hesketh family owned Easton Neston, one of Northamptonshire’s finest stately homes, with an estate that included Towcester racecourse. Then along came Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh ( below). Born in 1950, the rotund Lord Hesketh inherited his title at five, following the early death of his father, and his estate and fortune at 21. By 2004, Easton Neston had to be sold.
The money was largely spent satisfying Hesketh’s appetite for food, wine and entertaining – his nickname is “Fatty” – and his hobbies, motor racing and politics.
His racing team entered James Hunt in F1 and F2 races in the 1970s, but was then sold and folded. He launched his motorbike firm in 1980, but it went bankrupt, losing investors £1.8m.
An ex-chief whip and junior minister in the Thatcher government, Hesketh became Conservative Party treasurer in 2003. Today, he lives more modestly in London. He has two daughters.
The Frasers of Lovat are one of Scotland’s best-known feudal dynasties. Their most famous 20th Century scion, the war hero Lord Lovat, is pictured ( right) presiding over a Fraser clan gathering in 1951 at Beaufort Castle, at the height of the family’s influence.
Recent years have been less kind, though. On Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, the Frasers attended the church at Eskadale for a funeral service and requiem mass. It was the third time they had gathered for such a purpose in less than a year. As the pipers played, the mourners grieved not only the loss of loved ones, but for the demise of a great estate.
The first funeral had been for Andrew Fraser, the youngest son of Lord Lovat, who was killed by a buffalo in Tanzania. The second was for Andrew’s high-living, debt-ridden older brother, Simon – the son and heir to the title – who died from a heart attack while hunting on their Beauly estate. And the third was for MacShimi: the great war hero and clan chief of the Frasers of Lovat.
This was bad enough. But soon it would transpire that the family, whose title fell now to MacShimi’s grandson, an 18-year-old Harrovian also called Simon, was in dire financial trouble. Simon, the Master of Lovat who had died on the drag hunt, had left considerable debts behind him, following a series of poor business decisions: he was a big loser in the Lloyds’ crash, invested unwisely in speculative oil and gas acreage and made bad bloodstock deals. All told, the Master of Lovat died with around £7m of debt.
Crippled by his father’s lack of prudence, and besieged by Inland Revenue, who claimed considerable inheritance tax, the young Simon was forced to sell the family seat at Beauly for £1.5m. He is now a stockbroker in London, and has vowed to buy back the castle.
Aristotle Onassis started off in a job that paid 23 cents an hour. By the time of his second marriage, to John F Kennedy’s widow, Jackie, he’d built a shipping empire worth a minimum of $500m (£243m).
Onassis reportedly spent $20m on his honeymoon to the woman who became known as Jackie O, and owned the most fabulous yacht in history, named Christina after his daughter with his first wife, Athina. But his world was emptied when his son, Alexandros, died in a plane crash in Athens in 1973.
Christina ( far left) did not get along with her stepmother, and had a dysfunctional life. Each of her four marriages ended in divorce. When Aristotle Onassis died, she inherited 55 per cent of his wealth, with the rest – apart from a reported $26m for his widow – going to a foundation to honour Alexandros.
But Christina’s half of the Onassis empire declined in fortune. She pursued a decadent lifestyle, her weight oscillated unhealthily and she died aged 37 in 1988, lonely and despairing, at a country club near Buenos Aires, apparently of a combination of slimming drugs and sleeping pills.
Her fortune was left to a three-year-old daughter, Athina ( left). Her father endeavoured to give her a normal upbringing in Switzerland, where she attended state schools and shared ponies and mountain bikes with the toddlers of a children’s home. Her father and four trustees – Onassis’s former business associates – wrangled over Athina’s inheritance, until the courts handed control to KPMG Fides in Switzerland.
Last year Athina, who had recently married a Brazilian showjumper, finally inherited control of her fortune and the chairmanship of the Alexandros Foundation. At 22, she is now the sole surviving descendant of Aristotle, and one of the richest women in the world.
Conrad Nicholson Hilton built an eponymous hotel in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, and went on to preside over one of the world’s biggest hotel chains.
He married three times and fathered four children. When he died in 1979, aged 91, he left $250,000 to each of his surviving siblings and $10,000 to each of his nieces and nephews. Most of Conrad’s assets were bequeathed to the Roman Catholic Church and to fund humanitarian prizes. His children and other descendants were disinherited from his will.
However, his son Barron successfully contested the will in 1988, thereby transforming his net worth to more than $335m. Barron’s son Rick ( pictured, centre) has made a fortune in property in his own right and his net worth is now estimated at $300m (£146m).
He has four children, of whom daughters Nicky and Paris are the best known. They first came to public attention in 2000 in a Vanity Fair profile. As well as inheriting an estimated $30m, Paris has made tens of millions of dollars from a media career, including appearing in the television show The Simple Life, pop singing, product endorsement and personal appearances.
She is perhaps best known, however, for 1 Night in Paris, a three-year-old sex tape of her with her then boyfriend, released in 2003. She has subsequently hit the headlines for making racist comments that were caught on film and, most recently, for being jailed in California after a string of driving offences.
When the Drugs Enforcement Agency arrived at the door of John Hervey’s New York brownstone to investigate him for narcotics misdemeanours, his butler answered. The DEA flashed their credentials and demanded to speak to the seventh Marquess of Bristol. But the old retainer was unmoved. “I’m afraid there’s no question of disturbing his lordship,” he said. “He’s just gone to bed.” It was 10am.
Lord Bristol, who died in 1999 of multiple organ failure at the age of 44, was a dashing wastrel whose hedonism knew no bounds. In his short life, he blew £30m of his family’s money on riotous parties, industrial consignments of cocaine and heroin, and helicopters. He was twice imprisoned for drugs offences, but it did no good. When asked whether prison had changed him, he replied: “Christ no! What’s it supposed to do, anyway? It’s designed for the lower classes, isn’t it?”
Incarceration appeared to be genetic. At 23, John’s father, Victor Hervey (who was soon-to-be the sixth Marquess of Bristol), was jailed for three years for his part in planning a jewellery robbery. Ickworth, the gorgeous family seat in Suffolk, had been given to the National Trust in the 1950s in lieu of death duties, and the family leased back the east wing. In 1975, Victor put many of the Ickworth goods and chattels up for sale and moved to Monte Carlo. John raised enough to buy back the furniture, but eventually the house went the way of everything else in his life. In 1996, the contents were sold at auction, and the National Trust bought the remainder of the east wing lease.
Today, the “saga of the Bristols” lives on. John’s nieces, Lady Victoria and Lady Isabella Hervey ( below), have become prominent (if occasionally wayward) actresses, socialites – and stars of reality TV.
Jean Paul Getty Sr built up a family oil business to become one of the richest men in the world. “A billion dollars isn’t worth what it used to be,” he quipped at one point, despite installing a payphone for guests in his mansion at Sutton Place. He married five times, eventually concluding: “A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.”
With his fourth wife, Getty had a son, John Paul Jr ( below), whose first job, to prove himself to his father, was pumping petrol for $100 (£49) a month. After marrying a former waterpolo champion he adopted a more hedonistic lifestyle, and his second wife died of a heroin overdose in 1971.
In 1973, John Paul Jr was working in Rome as head of Getty Oil Italiana when his son, John Paul III, then 16, was abducted. The kidnappers demanded a $3m ransom. The family, assuming it was simply an attempt by the way-ward teenager to extort money from his wealthy grandfather, refused the demand.
The kidnappers cut off the boy’s ear and sent it to them, threatening to send the rest of him in little pieces by instalments. The family paid up. Jean Paul III was permanently affected by the trauma and became addicted to drugs and alcohol, which ultimately rendered him blind and paralysed. John Paul Jr’s other child, his daughter, Aileen, contracted Aids.
But John Paul Jr himself managed to kick his drug addiction after moving to London for treatment. He became a British citizen and was knighted.
He was introduced to cricket by Mick Jagger, and bought Wisden, as well as building a replica of The Oval at his estate in Buckinghamshire. He later became a significant philanthropist, donating £140m to the arts, including £50m to the National Gallery. He also contributed to the fund to keep Raphael’s The Madonna of the Pinks in the UK when his father’s Getty Museum tried to export it to California. John Paul Getty Jr died from a chest infection in 2003, aged 69.
When he was just 10, William Randolph Hearst ( right) – already heir to a huge mining fortune – asked his mother if she would buy him Windsor Castle. She said she would not, to which he replied: “Well then, will you buy me the Louvre?”
Born in 1863, Hearst went on to create one of the greatest newspaper empires in history. He pioneered what became known as “yellow journalism” and whipped up populist support for US military adventures at the end of the 19th century. Hearst also spent more than $50m (£24m) – in those days a truly staggering sum – on his art collection. He was the buyer of a full quarter of the world’s art objects that were sold in his lifetime.
Hearst’s sons, nephews and grandsons – many of whom were given his exact name – have continued to run the massive newspaper empire he founded, expanding it into broadband services and Silicon Valley venture capital firms. They have been largely unexciting figures, apart from one of his granddaughters, Patty.
Patty came to public notoriety in 1974 when, as a college student, she was kidnapped by a gang of political revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. They demanded that the Hearst family distribute millions of dollars worth of food to the poor. Six million dollars changed hands.
It soon became clear that Patty had come to identify with her captors, a response dubbed Stockholm syndrome, when the SLA issued a photo of her holding a machine gun. The heiress was put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. She was eventually captured in a shoot-out, convicted of bank robbery and imprisoned for almost two years, before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. Following her release Patty married her bodyguard, wrote several novels – as well as an account of her own kidnapping – and took bit parts as an actress. In 2001 President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon.
The Hearsts remain in the public eye thanks to Patty’s daughter, the 22-year-old model Lydia Hearst-Shaw, who has fronted campaigns for Prada, Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen and is a fixture on the New York social scene. Her own entrepreneurial efforts have included designing handbags for Puma.
Gianni Versace was born in Reggio di Calabria 1946, and learnt about fashion from his dressmaker mother. After working as a designer, he created the fashion label Versace in 1978, opening his first boutique with the help of his older brother, Santo. For two decades, it was one of the most influential (and lucrative) in the industry.
Everything changed, though, in 1997, when Gianni was shot dead in Miami by Andrew Cunanan, a gay prostitute and serial-killer. The Versace empire was divided between Santo, who became CEO, and Gianni’s younger sister, Donatella ( right), who became creative director.
Gianni left 30 per cent of the company to Santo and 20 per cent to Donatella – but bequeathed 50 per cent to Donatella’s oldest child, Allegra ( right), which she would inherit in 2004, when she turned 18.
On hearing the terms of her uncle’s will, Allegra is said to have asked, aghast: “Why did Uncle Gianni choose me?” She inherited an estimated $250m, a villa on Lake Como and a Manhattan townhouse, while her younger brother Daniel, 16, inherited Gianni’s art collection, which fetched $10m at auction in 2001.
Since Gianni’s murder, the family has faced further crises. The Versace label has struggled financially, Donatella has admitted to an addiction to cocaine, and Allegra has undergone a public struggle with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. in
Sometimes a name can be a more deadly inheritance than a fortune. The great-grandson of Germany’s famous Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, has lived a quiet life as an EC lawyer and property developer in Brussels. Prince Ferdinand von Bismarck does land deals from a castle near Hamburg which has been the home to the Bismarcks since the Kaiser gave the 14,330-acre estate to the great man as a reward for his “blood and iron” diplomacy in the early 20th century. His eldest son Carl-Eduard uses the family name to market spring water and cigars, and has dabbled in local politics. Daughter Vanessa von Bismarck is a partner in a New York PR firm that specialises in luxury goods.
But for Count Gottfried von Bismarck ( below), the second of Prince Ferdinand’s children, things turned out differently. Named after his great uncle, who was involved in the July 1944 uprising against Hitler, young Gottfried came to regard the family name as much as a burden as a privilege. He escaped to Britain as a student. Living so riotous a life that his father had to send a servant around Oxford paying off the massive bills he incurred, for fear his son’s louche profligacy would besmirch the family name.
In 1986, Olivia Channon, the daughter of a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, died in Bismarck’s bed in Christ Church College, after mixing heroin and alcohol at one of the parties for which he had become infamous. His homosexuality – he came out in the mid-Nineties – added to the inner turmoil his distinguished name created for him. In the end he let himself go entirely. In 2006 a man fell five floors to his death from the roof terrace of his London flat during another late-night party. Bismarck turned to drugs. He was found dead in his Chelsea flat earlier this month, aged 44. The precise cause of his death remains a mystery, and toxicology reports have not yet been released.
The giant of Italian manufacturing, Giovanni Agnelli founded Fiat in 1899 with an investment of only $400. He became its chairman in 1920, steering Fiat and his good name into the history books. After his death in 1945, his son Gianni became scion of the dynasty. In their home country, the Agnellis have the same hallowed status accorded to the Kennedys in the United States. Feuds, plotting, madness, debauchery and sudden death have so characterised the clan that locals say that if there are only so many disasters that can hit a dynasty, the Agnellis have had most of them twice.
Gianni had a privileged upbringing, but was thrown into the war in 1940 and wounded twice on the Russian front. It was two decades before he took over as president of Fiat in 1966, leading a worldwide expansion of its factories, from the Soviet Union to South America. Nicknamed “l’Avvocato” (the lawyer), he forged strong relations with the Italian Communist Party, despite being an arch capitalist, he formed close friendships with international politicians such as Henry Kissinger and bankers such as David Rockefeller of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Gianni became the richest man in Italy, with passions for football, skiing, sailing, motor racing and women. He married a princess, Marella Caracciolo de Castagneto in 1953, and had many sensational love affairs, with Pamela Harriman and Anita Ekberg, to name but two. He lacked one thing, though: a responsible child to whom he could bequeath his fortune. His son, and hoped-for successor, Edoardo Agnelli, despised business and capitalism in general, and, after studying religion at Princeton University, met Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran and reportedly converted to Islam.
Soon after, Edoardo was arrested for drug trafficking in Kenya. At a press conference in Assisi, he spoke about God and announced that he was preparing to take over Fiat. His father publicly disavowed him. In 2000, Edoardo killed himself by jumping off a bridge; he was survived by an illegitimate son.
Gianni, meanwhile, died in 2003. His brother Umberto ( far right) took over and revived its flagging fortunes. Four years on, a row has now erupted between Gianni’s 11 heirs over the family fortunes, fuelled by a fivefold rise in the value of Fiat shares. The saga continues.
John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, was given Blenheim Palace and the Oxfordshire estates that surrounded it by Queen Anne in 1704 after leading the armies that defeated the French and Bavarians. The family is one of Britain’s grandest and has produced some of the nation’s greatest aristocrats and statesmen, including Winston Churchill.
Today’s heir, however, is no statesman. Charles James Spencer-Churchill, 51, more commonly known as Jamie Blandford ( right), is one of the modern aristocracy’s most voracious consumers of narcotics and money. He has made a habit of habits. His drug use has landed him in court on a number of occasions, and he has been imprisoned three times. Indeed, one magistrate branded him “a common criminal”, which, as heir apparent to the dukedom of Malborough, must smart a little.
So worried was his father for the safety of the family pile that in 1994 he partly disinherited his wayward son.
Recently, however, Blandford is said to have steadied his ship, but he still doesn’t trust himself to carry his own wallet, and in March, he appeared in court in Banbury to answer a dangerous-driving charge.
They don’t come more blue-blooded than the Mount-battens, aristocratic residents of the 6,000-acre Broadlands estate in Hampshire, where their relatives and family friends, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, chose to spend their honeymoon. Yet tragedy has often intruded on the family’s Arcadian paradise, on the banks of the river Test.
In 1979, Lord Mountbatten – great-grandson of Queen Victoria and mentor to the Duke of Edinburgh – was killed by the IRA while fishing with his grandson, who also died, in Donegal Bay. Days later, his other grandson Philip (466th in line to the throne) married Penny, now Lady Romsey (pictured left), and took up residence at Broadlands. One of their two daughters, Leonora, died of cancer in 1991, at the age of five. Their only son, Nicholas, has since endured an epic struggle with drink and drugs. Despite being Prince Charles’ godson – and having been given the task of “mentoring” Prince William at Eton – 26-year-old Nicholas dropped out of Edinburgh University after just six weeks. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested and cautioned by police after being found in possession of cannabis.
He soon adopted a punk haircut, became heavily tattooed, and moved on to harder narcotics. In 2004, he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Last year, he enjoyed stints in the Stepping Stones Addiction Centre in South Africa.
Today, Nicholas boasts the courtesy title of Lord Romsey. Although officially heir to a £100m fortune – which includes the Broadlands estate – his parents are reported to have taken steps to prevent him assuming full control of the inheritance.
(c) 2007 Independent & Media PLC
Publication: The Independent