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Relatives of Hearst heiress seek control of her assets

In an ongoing legal battle in San Luis Obispo County, family contends 81-year-old billionaire Phoebe Hearst Cooke lacks the ability to handle her finances. A temporary conservator has been appointed.

March 04, 2009|Steve Chawkins

Phoebe Hearst Cooke is a noted horsewoman and philanthropist. She owns two ranches in San Luis Obispo County, and with assets between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, she is a fixture on the Forbes list of America's wealthiest people.

She also is at the center of legal actions filed by relatives who contend the 81-year-old granddaughter of publishing legend William Randolph Hearst no longer has the capacity to manage her own affairs.

In ongoing court hearings, family members say Cooke has displayed "a lack of ability to resist undue influence and fraud in the handling of her finances." They successfully requested appointment of a temporary conservator and are seeking to place control of Cooke's assets in the hands of her twin brother, George Hearst Jr.

Hearst is chairman of the family's corporation, which owns the San Francisco Chronicle and other media properties.

Family members and attorneys on both sides did not return phone calls Tuesday. But documents filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court paint a picture of a searing conflict between a woman who can be fiercely independent-minded and relatives who say they are concerned about the alleged vulnerability of an elderly heiress.

In court papers, the family contended that Cooke had given an unidentified car dealer a $1.9-million check to manage her finances and made a number of "six-figure" gifts to various people. They also said she gave "an acquaintance" a key to a home she owns in the wealthy Bay Area community of Woodside. Several valuable paintings were later discovered missing, according to the documents.

Lisa Niesen, San Luis Obispo County's deputy public guardian, described Cooke's property and finances as "in a state of disarray for a considerable amount of time." Cooke and her late husband, Jack Cooke, were behind in their tax payments and had failed to respond to two lawsuits from local businesses, said Niesen, who was named Cooke's temporary conservator. Cooke also "was unable to participate in the management" of hundreds of horses and cattle on her Circle 6 and Hoop E ranches, according to Niesen.

The Cookes were married for 45 years. Jack Cooke, a rancher, Hearst Corp. executive and former board chairman of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, died last year. The couple's only child -- Phoebe "Misty" Lipari, 56, of Cambria -- is one of the relatives seeking conservatorship for her mother.

In court documents, one of Phoebe Hearst Cooke's former physicians was quoted as saying she showed signs "of a serious psychiatric condition and/or personality disorder." A nurse said that Cooke believed people were conspiring against her, ate poorly and refused to see a doctor after recent falls.

In responses from her attorneys, Cooke said the appointment of a temporary conservator was riddled by "a shocking number of procedural irregularities." Michael Collins, one of the attorneys who has represented her, added that no elder abuse had been proved.

Cooke's first attorney in the case had asked to be relieved because his client made it "unreasonably difficult."

After the first salvo of the conservatorship battle in July, Cooke retained reputable lawyers and financial managers -- "a team of trusted individuals," according to Collins. "This debacle has made Mrs. Cooke realize that with the death of her husband, she has entered an era where she can be aided in the management of her assets," he said in a court filing.

Even so, she should not be constrained from spending as she pleases, the lawyer contended, saying that even if her estate were to lose $5 million annually, it would not be depleted for 420 years.

"Mrs. Cooke has been a woman of great generosity to individuals and institutions, making charitable contributions and substantial gifts of a noncharitable nature to whom she deems worthy," he said.

"The fact is, Mrs. Cooke is entitled to live as she chooses, to manage as she chooses, and even to overlook what might be viewed by others as over-reaching."

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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