Descendant of Brand family in legal fight over estate

Poking out from a mountain of clutter on the dining room table in Austeene Cooper’s living room is a pair of pink candelabras accented with ornate piping. There are other similar items — framed photographs, mirrors, furniture — that whisper of a bygone era of luxury and privilege.

They once decorated the Beverly Hills home of her father, Harry Brand Cooper, the great-nephew of Leslie C. Brand, who was one of the founders of the city of Glendale.

Sitting now amid dust and cat-scratched boxes, they tell a different story: that of a woman who, four generations removed from the peak of her family’s wealth, is struggling to adapt to a new reality in which she is struggling to even keep a roof over her head.

“I wasn’t going to let them go. I had to pay for them,” she said of the heirlooms, purchased at a 2004 auction as her father’s estate was divided among her siblings. “I brought everything in and just put it around in my house expecting I was going to get more money so that I could organize everything and make it livable, and that never happened, so now it is just a disaster.”

Raised on private schools, fine clothes and glitzy parties, Austeene Cooper, 62, is currently squatting in her Benedict Canyon Drive home. She says she hasn’t made a payment on the heavily mortgaged property in more than a year. She’s without an income, and says that her inheritance is all but gone.

What’s more, she is locked in a bitter legal battle with her three brothers over their father’s estate. The dispute has played out in probate court like a bruising, nine-round boxing match with allegations of mismanagement, fraud and frivolous lawsuits.

The Cooper brothers maintain that the terms of their father’s trust were executed as Harry Brand Cooper dictated before his death, refuting their sister’s claims that they hid assets and shirked their responsibilities.

A life of promise

Austeene Cooper’s family tree is deeply rooted in Glendale’s history. Her paternal grandmother and namesake, Austeene Cooper, was raised in Glendale at her uncle Leslie C. Brand’s estate, El Miradero. The property was given to the city in 1945 and is now home to the Brand Park and Library.

Her paternal grandfather, John T. Cooper, was a chairman at Security First National Bank, one of the oldest in Los Angeles. The couple had three children. Second among them was Harry Brand Cooper, described by family and friends as a dashing figure.

Harry Brand Cooper maintained a cache of race cars and boats, and an even bigger cache of friends, said Los Angeles-based attorney and family friend Nick Gutsue.

“His parties were the parties to go to,” he said.

He caught the eye of studio-contracted actress Claire Dodd, known to family and friends as Anne. The screen siren cut short a career that included a stint with the Ziegfeld Follies troupe and dozens of movie appearances to marry Harry Brand Cooper.

Anne Cooper named her first-born Austeene after the child’s grandmother. The family, which grew to include three boys — John, Brand and Peter — eventually settled into a Beverly Hills home on Hidden Valley Road, next to Franklin Canyon Park.

Her upbringing included a heavy emphasis on physical appearance, Austeene Cooper said. Her mother started feeding her diet pills when she was a teenager. She attended private high school and college, although she never earned a college degree. And she was instructed not to worry about money because she would always be taken care of.

“My mother said, ‘Oh, you are going to have all the men in the world after you, you’ll see,’” Austeene Cooper recalled.

But a husband never materialized, and she was ill-prepared for a life as a single, independent woman. She dabbled in art, earning a little money by selling paintings. But Austeene Cooper said she was largely supported by her father.

In 1985, he paid cash for the modest two-bedroom Beverly Hills home where she now lives. According to the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office, the 1985 purchase price was $339,000.

As he advanced in age, Harry Brand Cooper reassured his daughter that she would be financially safeguarded in his will.

“He took me for a walk,” Austeene Cooper recounted. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I am going to make sure that each one of you gets a million dollars …You don’t have to worry about anything.’”

A disputed trust

Harry Brand Cooper took into account his daughter’s lack of financial wherewithal when drafting the family trust in 1995, four years before his death. He dictated that her inheritance be placed in a special sub-trust overseen by Bank of America.

According to probate documents dating back to the mid-2000s, Bank of America declined to act. The responsibility was then supposed to fall to her brothers, Brand or Peter, but both brothers also declined, naming instead an independent trustee at their sister’s request.

They also had her sign an indemnification agreement stating that they were in no way responsible for any future losses or liabilities incurred by the new trust arrangement.

It was the first in a series of legal moves for Austeene Cooper that would see her inheritance — which according to Los Angeles County Superior Court filings totaled $690,000 — shrink to almost nothing.

Her first trust officer lost more than $200,000 in the stock market. She sued the trustee and lost, and was ordered to pay $69,000 in fees. A second trustee was named to the tune of $25,000.

In order to tide herself over between payouts from the trust, she borrowed against her previously debt-free house, burdening herself with steep monthly mortgage payments, Austeene Cooper said.

In interviews and in documents submitted to the court, she said she spent between $17,000 and $27,000 buying personal items and furniture from the estate. There were also loans to friends and veterinarian bills for a sick pet.

Austeene Cooper concedes her mistakes, saying she failed to manage her money properly, and that she relied on untrustworthy individuals for financial and legal counsel. But she also alleges that she never received her fair share of Harry Brand Cooper’s estate.

In court filings spanning seven years — the most recent of which were filed last week — Austeene Cooper argued that assets, such as automobiles and jewelry, were never catalogued in the final accounting of the estate. Her mother’s $200,000 diamond necklace that was stored in a safe that only her brothers had access to disappeared, she said.

Austeene Cooper also questioned whether the Hidden Valley Road home — which sold for $3.6 million in 2004 — was sold at full market price.

Her parents would be horrified if they knew what had become of her, Austeene Cooper said.

“It is pretty disgusting what has been done to me,” she said.

John, Brand and Peter Cooper did not respond to requests for comment. Michael Gill, an attorney representing Brand and Peter Cooper, also declined to comment.

But in court proceedings, the brothers continue to argue that the money was distributed according to the terms of the trust. They also accuse Austeene Cooper of unnecessarily delaying the final accounting, and describe her ongoing objections as “an affront.”

“This lady has had her day in court,” Gill said at a March 30 hearing.

Looking forward

Friends have helped Austeene Cooper file for Social Security disability, and have started to explore whether a provision in Leslie C. Brand’s will that deeded the Brand estate to the city of Glendale could help her in some way.

There are multiple houses at Brand Park, they note. Given her great-great-uncle’s contribution to the city, they say it might be appropriate for her to be provided with a place to live.

Austeene Cooper has visited Brand Park but a handful of times during the last decade. She claimed her brothers barred her from attending her father’s 1999 funeral, the last to take place at the Brand family cemetery, which is situated on a steep slope behind the Brand Library.

But she is well-versed in family history, and proudly shows off albums filled with 100-year-old photographs of her grandmother, great-great uncle and others on the grounds of El Miradero.

Austeene Cooper is also preparing for a May 11 probate hearing where she said she plans to contest the second and final accounting of the Harry Brand Cooper Family Trust.

Friends said they hope she will get a portion of what remains in the trust — a sum of less than $50,000 — if not a bit of dignity.

“She is just a lovely human being,” said longtime friend Jacqueline Ames. “She is so kind and so sensitive that it is hard for her to perceive people who are a little gruffer. The problem is that her brothers knew that. I am wondering why they didn’t protect her more, because that is what her father really wanted: for her to be protected.”

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