A dozen top-flight Texas lawyers are polishing their courtroom armor for a high-stakes battle set to begin next week over the division of a half-billion-dollar estate and how much of it will gild the Houston, Texas art scene.
The daughter of oil pioneer and cultural philanthropist Alfred C. Glassell Jr. is contesting his most recent of nine wills, claiming lawyers coerced him into shrinking her share of the estate and bequeathing it to charity.
Glassell died at age 95 in October 2008. He was a founder of Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp. and the Glassell School of Art. He left behind an enormous estate worth around $500 million that includes hundreds of millions of dollars in stocks and bonds, millions more in oil leases, thousands of acres in ranches, pre-Columbian and Indonesian art treasures, and a $5.8 million home near the River Oaks Country Club.
Lawyers haggled in court Wednesday in preparation for a jury trial scheduled to start Monday in which some of Houston's powerful may be called to testify to help determine which of Glassell's wills should be followed.
Alone on one side of the dispute, arguing in favor of a 1998 will, is the oilman's daughter Curry Glassell.
She is a 52-year-old single mother of two who attended the New School, a Greenwich Village-based progressive university. She's active in the “Good Vibes for You” bottled water company and lists herself as an “Access Consciousness” facilitator.
Opposed by brother, mom
On the other side of the lawsuit is a formidable crowd. It includes her younger brother, Alfred Glassell III, who followed his father's footsteps into the River Oaks Country Club and society column charity balls; their father's widow, Clare Attwell Glassell; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Glassell Family Foundation, a charity run by Alfred Glassell III and expected to benefit Houston art. This group wants Probate Court Judge Kathy Stone to abide by the last will, signed in 2003.
In the 2003 will and the 2000 will before it, though there are individual gifts and a life estate for his widow, the bulk of the estate would go to the MFAH and the Glassell foundation. Curry Glassell claims those two wills, which leave her some land and about $1.6 million after taxes, were designed by Vinson & Elkins lawyers who pushed a sick, possibly demented old man to give more to philanthropy.
“For decades, Mr. Glassell's wills provided substantial gifts to his daughter and his two grandchildren. Only at age 87 did his will change to dramatically reduce those gifts. Curry Glassell contends that her father was heavily influenced to reduce these gifts by others he trusted at times when he was vulnerable,” said Jack Lawter, one of her lawyers, in a written statement Wednesday.
Her lawyers argue that the elder Glassell was frail when Vinson & Elkins lawyers steered him into giving most of his daughter's inheritance to a charity overseen by her brother and family friends.
Could end up with nothing
If she wins, Curry Glassell and her brother each would take some $100 million and land. If she loses, they would take around $3 million and land. She could lose even that if the jury finds she contested the will in bad faith and should be excluded under a provision barring gifts to anyone who questions the will.
“She's grasping at slender reeds,” said Joe Jamail, one of the museum's lawyers. He said Vinson & Elkins does the museum work pro bono and had nothing to gain. A spokesman for the law firm said its lawyers may testify in this ongoing litigation and therefore have no comment.
“Contrary to what Curry Glassell's attorneys at law claim, she was not disinherited by Mr. Glassell, who provided adequately for her during his lifetime and provided for her and her two children in his will,” Jamail said.
Alfred Glassell Jr. was chairman of the museum's board and built its teaching school, which bears his name. He donated major pieces from his own collection of Asian, pre-Columbian and African art, including exquisite gold.
The trial is expected to include testimony about what Curry Glassell and her brother already have been given by their father and what his mental and physical condition was when he signed the 2003 and 2000 wills.
“She was given this money, and she squandered it,” James McCartney, a lawyer for the widow, said of Curry Glassell in court Wednesday.
Witnesses in the will fight could include the museum's Peter and Frances Marzio, financial guru Fayez Sarofim, a cadre of Vinson & Elkins lawyers and experts to speculate on the elder Glassell's mental state.