Johnson Heirs Fighting Over $500-Million Estate

April 29, 1985|United Press International

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — J. Seward Johnson's widow and his children by earlier marriages are fighting among themselves for the Johnson & Johnson heir's $500-million fortune and the marine research foundation that was his dream.

A two-year power struggle among Johnson's wife and his six children is scheduled to go before a probate judge in Manhattan in June, it was reported Sunday.

The Miami Herald reported that the issue is Johnson's estate and the future of his $130-million Harbor Branch research foundation in St. Lucie County. The laboratory, outfitted with ships and two mini-submarines, was established by Johnson for the study of marine animals and sea grasses.

Johnson died of cancer in May, 1983, at age 87. His final will--the last of about 30--was signed a month before, and it left nearly every penny of his medical-supplies fortune to his wife, Barbara Johnson, 48. His six children from earlier marriages received trusts while he was alive and became multi-millionaires, but they got nothing in the will.

They have challenged the will, contending it was written while their father was of unsound mind and that he was psychologically dominated by his wife. They say Barbara Johnson, who met their father when she was a maid at one of his estates, married him in 1971 solely for his money.

"Right after my father died, within two weeks she went on a furniture-buying spree," J. Seward Johnson Jr. said. "She had a Sotheby's catalogue right there while my father was dying, circling things."

Barbara Johnson's attorneys claim Johnson chose to exclude the children from the will because he was angry over their conduct.

A court ruling could give $100 million to Harbor Branch or leave the money to Barbara Johnson.

Johnson's children say their father always intended to provide for the foundation. They point to two wills he wrote two months before his death in which he said a trust of $100 million would go to Harbor Branch upon his wife's death.

But the clause was altered in the final will, giving Barbara Johnson power to choose who would be given the money.

The probate judge's decision may be based on a letter Barbara Johnson wrote before her husband's death, saying she would give the trust money to Harbor Branch. In court documents, the children say the letter is valid and that Barbara Johnson has attempted to hide its existence, but her attorneys said the letter has no legal standing.

In a suit filed in February, 1984, Barbara Johnson accused Johnson Jr. of losing $24 million of the foundation's trust fund money over 19 months by investing in short-term, high-risk stocks.

"Junior's just blowing it," the newspaper quoted a source close to Barbara Johnson as saying. "He has a home computer for his investments and he plays Atari games on it."

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