“The Butler Did It!”: The Legal Battle over the Estate of Doris Duke

By Al Stirgeon
(Pepperdine Law)

Before Doris Duke died at her home, Falcon’s Lair, in Beverly Hills, California, her butler had a hearse waiting in the driveway to take her body for immediate cremation. There were no family members or friends at her deathbed, just powerful lawyers, respected doctors, and her butler. At stake was the vast fortune of “the richest little girl in the world” who died without close living relatives.

Don Howarth and Suzelle Smith are partners in the Los Angeles law firm of Howarth & Smith. Accomplished trial lawyers, who handle high profile cases, they represented Miss Duke until a year before her death. When a new Will naming the butler, Bernard Lafferty, surfaced and was filed for probate in New York immediately after her death, they were retained to challenge it by the Executor of the prior Will, Ms. Duke’s personal physician, who had not been present at her deathbed and had been systematically excluded from seeing her by the butler. As Executor under the new Will butler Bernard Lafferty had $1.5 billion under his control, was already spending profusely, and hired a team of 15 lawyers to fight the Will contest. The lines were drawn in the New York Surrogate’s Court in front of Judge Eve Preminger, niece of Hollywood’s Otto Preminger, and no expense was spared in the greatest Will contest of all time.

The subject of several Hollywood movies and three television documentaries, the legal saga headed by Mr. Howarth and Ms. Smith is now featured in a new book, “The Duke Legacy” by Miss Duke’s nephew, DW Duke, available on Amazon.

On January 22, 2015 Pepperdine will host Don Howarth, Suzelle Smith and the author of the book, DW Duke, for a one hour program. In our program the author will review the life and history of Miss Duke and her family, and the attorneys will address the legal strategies and developments which ultimately disclosed the termination of Miss Duke’s life by a morphine overdose, the removal of U.S. Trust and Bernard Lafferty as Executors, and the establishment of a nine member board of trustees to administer the $1.5 billion charitable trust. Frequent lecturers and renowned advocates, Mr. Howarth and Ms. Smith will give the audience an inside look into the case that proves the adage that reality is often stranger than fiction.