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Philanthropist Astor’s will headed for court challenge

Philanthropist Astor’s will headed for court challenge

Wed, 14 Oct 2009 21:34:18By Thomas J. Morgan
Journal Staff Writer

Philanthropist Brooke Astor shown in a 1998 photo.
NYT / FRED R. CONRAD

Philip C. Marshall, the grandson of the late Brooke Astor, a New York philanthropist who spent her early years in Newport, said Tuesday that now that his father has been convicted in the Brooke Astor will case, he expects the will to be contested by various charities.

Marshall, who touched off the chain of events that led to the conviction of his father, Anthony D. Marshall, said he has no quarrel with the New York jury verdict last week that found his father guilty of taking advantage of his grandmother’s dementia to enrich himself at her expense.

“I know the jurors really took this seriously, as they should,” said Marshall, who teaches historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Bristol, and who spoke from Nashville, where he is attending a professional conference. “I agree with the jury in terms of the guilty verdict.” He said he also expects the case will draw national attention to the issue of elder abuse.

Marshall said that now that the criminal trial has ended, it is likely that a civil court battle involving various parties who stand to benefit — or not — from the inheritance will resume. He said that although he personally will benefit from the will, he does not want any of the money that his grandmother intended to go to charity, a lifelong crusade of Astor.

Astor gave millions to libraries, museums and other New York institutions, according to the Associated Press. Her motto was, “Money is like manure — it should be spread around.”

When Astor died, her estate was estimated at $180 million, although its current value is probably much less, Marshall said.

Anthony D. Marshall, Astor’s son, faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced in December. The jury on Thursday found him guilty of first-degree larceny for looting the estate of $1 million while he was managing his mother’s finances. Francis X. Morrissey, a codefendant and estate planner, was convicted of forgery.

At issue were amendments to Astor’s will. Astor, who died two years ago at the age of 105, was not competent at that time to authorize such a change, which granted Anthony Marshall additional control of the estate, the prosecution contended.

Philip Marshall in July 2006 touched off the chain of events leading to his father’s conviction when he filed civil court papers that accused his father, Astor’s guardian, of neglect. He complained that the elder Marshall had allowed Astor to sleep in soiled clothing on a dirty couch and to live on a diet of oatmeal and peas, among other offenses.

According to a settlement announced in October 2006, Anthony Marshall was replaced as Astor’s guardian by the JPMorgan Chase bank and Annette de la Renta, wife of Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer.

“The battle is now going to continue in several arenas,” Philip Marshall said, “because the will is being contested.” He said that in his civil court filing he submitted a 1997 will, contending that this is the document that should stand. He said the 2004 will, which was a focal point of his father’s prosecution, came too late in his grandmother’s life for her to properly comprehend what she was doing.

“The whole probate case got put on hold earlier this year” while the criminal case proceeded. “Now, it will start up again,” he said.

Involved are charities named in the will.

While the value of the estate was estimated at $180 million at Astor’s death in 2007, that figure has probably been reduced considerably by the financial landslide that has plagued the world since then, Marshall said. “I don’t want that money,” he said. “My grandmother always wanted that money to go to charity, to New Yorkers.”

Widowed in the 1950s, Astor married Vincent Astor, oldest son of John Jacob Astor IV, who went down with the Titanic. The family fortune came from the original John Jacob Astor, a 19th-century fur trader and New York real estate investor.

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