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Thomas Kinkade's wife, girlfriend battle over his estate

SAN JOSE — Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™, spent his last two years legally separated from his wife of nearly three decades and struggling with alcoholism.

Now, the $60-million-plus estate of America's most collected artist — master of the prayer garden and the glowing cottage — is at the center of a nasty legal battle complete with two wills, two women and two very different images of the painter's last wishes.

Nanette Kinkade, his estranged wife, and Amy Pinto, who says she and Kinkade were planning a Fiji wedding before his death at age 54, are locked in a dispute over the disposition of his fortune — as well as his remains.

Photos: Thomas Kinkade: 'The Painter of Light'

The critically panned painter, whose artworks are said to hang in one of every 20 American homes — along with the White House and the Billy Graham Library — died on a Friday morning three months ago after ingesting too much alcohol and Valium.

Since then, Pinto has come forward with two handwritten wills that bequeath her $10 million and Kinkade's compound — his house and his studio, called Ivy Gate — in the woodsy Silicon Valley suburb of Monte Sereno. They also charge her with creating a Kinkade museum.

Nanette Kinkade has accused her estranged husband's live-in girlfriend of everything from gold digging to possible industrial espionage. The two sides will face off in probate court on Monday, where a judge is scheduled to consider who should be chosen to administer Kinkade's estate.

Nanette Kinkade and her attorneys have referred all requests for comment to a New York public relations firm. Pinto wants desperately to talk, said attorney Douglas Dal Cielo, "but at the current time she's muzzled" by a confidentiality agreement, which, like everything else in the Kinkade saga, is the focus of a legal battle.

Don't expect to find any clarity on the official Kinkade website, which sports a circa 1980s photo of the young artist — "a simple boy with a brush from the small country town of Placerville" — arm around his Farrah-haired wife, his childhood sweetheart. There is a gushing description of the "symbols of his love" painted into pastoral scenes and NASCAR races.

"Numerous paintings contain hidden 'N's' representing Thom's lovely wife Nanette," the site says, "and many other paintings include the numbers 5282 as tribute to their wedding date May 2, 1982."

Court documents — and there are plenty of those — paint a far more complicated picture of Kinkade's life.

After 28 years of marriage, Nanette Kinkade filed for a legal separation in April 2010. Less than two months later, one of the artist's many companies sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which resulted in the establishment of a payment plan to cover a legal settlement. Kinkade had lost a suit against former gallery owners, who said he had used his Christian faith to induce them to invest and then stuck them with unsellable goods. With interest and legal fees, he owed $2.8 million.

Two weeks after the filing, Kinkade was arrested for driving under the influence.

But 2010 apparently wasn't all bad. That's when he met Pinto, now 48, the dark-haired answer to his estranged blond wife. Trained as an electrical engineer, Pinto is of Indian descent and was raised in Kuwait. They talked. They bonded. According to Pinto, they fell in love.

First, however, Kinkade offered her a job as director of strategic projects.

"Thomas had a dream of taking his talents and visions internationally, and in particular to Asian markets, and to use his talents and celebrity for philanthropic purposes," Pinto said in court papers. "Thomas viewed me as a tremendous resource in reaching out to other cultures to carry out this expansive vision."

As part of the deal, she signed a confidentiality agreement.

In February 2011, however, John Hasting — chief executive of the Thomas Kinkade Co. — informed Pinto "that Nanette had 'blocked' my hiring." Kinkade and Hasting, Pinto said, assured her that the confidentiality agreement was therefore void.

A month later, Pinto and her youngest daughter moved into Kinkade's Monte Sereno home.

"Amy and Thomas were deeply in love," declared papers filed by Pinto's lawyer. "They both believed that fate brought them together to help each other through the difficult times they both encountered as well as to share their dreams of a life together."

By the end of the year, Kinkade allegedly had penned two holographic wills. They are brief, and almost unreadable. The most recent version was dated Dec. 11, 2011, and says in part:

"I, Thomas Kinkade, hereby bequeath my house … to Amy Pinto in the event of my death. I also give the sum of $10,000,000 to Amy Pinto to be used for the establishment of the Thomas Kinkade Museum … for the public display in perpetuity of original art."

When Kinkade was hospitalized briefly earlier this year — the reason was not disclosed in court documents — he gave Pinto his healthcare power of attorney. Although their relationship had its share of "trials and tribulations," Pinto said, they began planning their wedding.

They looked at engagement rings, and Kinkade picked out a tropical resort for the ceremony. He also began to focus on his legacy, Pinto said. He wanted a museum, to be housed in his Monte Sereno property, that resembled Norman Rockwell's. He wanted artists to come there and teach underprivileged children. He wanted free admission and a foundation like the Getty Center's.

Five days before his death, Kinkade had dinner with Keith Barna, a longtime friend. The two talked about Pinto and love and starting over. They hashed out the idea of bifurcation, being free to remarry even though all of the financial aspects of a divorce aren't complete.

Kinkade told his buddy that he "truly loved" Pinto; "I want to take care of her, I want her in my life," Barna recalled. "He wanted to get married to her.… He would have wanted me to stand up for him and say that."

But Kinkade and Pinto's plans came to an end on April 6. That's when Pinto said she "found Thomas in our bed and non-responsive to my trying to wake him." She called 911, but the paramedics could not resuscitate him.

Kenneth Raasch, a trustee of the Kinkade estate, also was called to Kinkade's home.

Raasch "assisted the coroner in removing Thomas' body from the Residence against my wishes," Pinto said in court papers. She was excluded from any decisions about the disposition of his remains. She was not invited to the memorial service at a private Los Gatos retreat, or to Kinkade's burial in Saratoga.

The day after Kinkade's death, Pinto gave a brief, tearful interview to a local news website. "He died in his sleep," she told Cupertino Patch. "He had a heart condition."

The article was included in an April 9 court filing requesting an emergency temporary restraining order against Pinto. It claimed that she had breached the confidentiality agreement by revealing Kinkade's private health information — and that she had threatened to spill more secrets.

The result would be "personally devastating not only for Mrs. Kinkade, but also for the family's four daughters," the filing said.

It warned that, as Kinkade's "personal assistant and companion," Pinto was privy to highly sensitive information regarding Windermere Holdings, which operates the Kinkade art businesses, and that she was likely to "misappropriate Windermere's trade secrets for her own purposes or disclose them to third parties."

Last month, a judge ruled that disputes between Nanette Kinkade and Pinto must be resolved in confidential arbitration. Pinto is seeking monetary damages over the disposition of Kinkade's body. The estate has charged Pinto with breaching the confidentiality agreement.

Last week, Nanette Kinkade's team also requested that the probate proceedings be conducted behind closed doors. A ruling on that point is pending.

In a written statement, Marcia Horowitz, spokeswoman for the Kinkade estate, said Thomas and Nanette Kinkade's wills were up to date at the time of his death and that the artist had Pinto sign a confidentiality agreement to protect his assets and privacy.

"Because of this," Horowitz said, "the estate believes that it has a clear obligation to honor Thom's wishes."

But Pinto says she too has an obligation — to Kinkade, his legacy, his millions of fans.

"The establishment of the museum was very important to Thomas," Pinto said in a declaration filed Thursday. "He went to great lengths to describe for me and to show me his vision for the museum. It is my every intention to see that his wishes are carried out."

Photos: Notable deaths of 2012

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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