In a decision that promises to escalate the fight over Doris Duke's billion-dollar estate, a judge here Monday granted one of the heiress's former doctors legal standing to challenge her will.
Manhattan Surrogate's Judge Eve M. Preminger granted the long-pending petition of Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, a New York "longevity" and vitamin specialist who befriended Duke years ago and was named a co-executor of her estate in a 1991 codicil.
Though Duke signed four other wills or codicils after that, Demopoulos alleged that they were obtained by fraud or undue influence, including her last will--signed in 1993 while she was a patient at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
That will left Duke's onetime butler, Bernard Lafferty, largely in control of an estate destined to become one of the nation's largest charitable foundations.
"Obviously, I'm overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility," Demopoulos said after the ruling, "but overjoyed with the probability that we will get closer and closer to fulfilling Doris' dreams."
Don Howarth, one of Demopoulos' lawyers, said the decision will empower his legal team to now take sworn depositions from "the elusive Mr. Lafferty [and] the whole coterie of people who were around" the 80-year-old tobacco heiress before she died Oct. 28, 1993, at her gated estate above Beverly Hills.
Among those they intend to question, he said, are Duke's plastic surgeon, who received a $500,000 gift shortly before her death, and longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor, who filed an affidavit attesting that Duke was of sound mind.
Though Duke died in California, her will was filed in New York, where she maintained another of her many homes. But the estate, the largest ever submitted for probate here, has been the target of a string of sensational allegations--including a nurse's contention that Duke was murdered by drugs and Demopoulos' contention that "an illiterate, unstable" Lafferty went on spending sprees with her money.
A series of rulings so far have placed a court-appointed executor in joint control of the estate with Lafferty. An appellate ruling is pending over who will emerge with principal say over the estimated $1.2-billion estate and the newly formed Doris Duke Charitable Foundation--at least until Demopoulos' challenge works its way through the courts.
In granting him standing, Preminger said the New York physician had made enough of a "good cause" showing of possible wrongdoing to justify a trial on his claims.
Demopoulos now has 10 days to file his formal objections to Duke's last will.
"It gives him the opportunity he sought from the start to prove at trial what he said all along, that the April 5, 1993, will was invalid as it was procured as a result of undue influence at a time when [Duke] wasn't mentally competent to sign it," said another of Demopoulos' lawyers, Rodney Houghton.
Attorneys for Lafferty and the Duke estate could not be reached for comment Monday.