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Fight Over King Ranch Heir’s Estate – In re Estate of Belton Kleberg Johnson

Earlier this year, the San Antonio Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a case contesting the will of Belton Kleberg (B.K.) Johnson, greatgrandson of the founder of the King Ranch. Johnson died in 2001 at the age of 71. In the 1950’s, Johnson was passed over to head the management of the 825,000-acre King Ranch lands, and he sold his interest in the Ranch in 1976, but kept his royalty interests.

Johnson’s life and the will contest opinion give a rare glimpse into the world of the rich and powerful in South Texas. Johnson was educated at Deerfield Academy, Cornell and Stanford. He served on the board of directors of AT&T, Tenneco, Campbell Soup, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, and several Texas banks. He was the owner of Chaparrosa south of San Antonio, where he lived and raised his family and raised registered Santa Gertrudis cattle. He owned the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the San Antonio Riverwalk, and he restored the Fairmount Hotel in San Antonio.

Johnson was married three times. He and his first wife, Patsy, had three children: Ceci, Sarah and Kley. Kley died in a car accident in 1991, survived by his wife and two children. Sarah married Steven Pitt and they have three children. Ceci married Mark McMurrey, and they have three children.

Johnson divorced Patsy in 1987, and in 1991 he married Lynne, who died of cancer in 1994. In 1996, he married Laura, to whom he was married when he died in 2001.

At the time of his death, Johnson’s latest will, written in 1999, left his estate to a trust. His wife Laura was the beneficiary of the trust for the remainder of her life. The trust gave Laura the right to name Johnson’s children and grandchildren as beneficiaries of up to 1/2 of the trust property (a “power of appointment”), and the other half (or the entire trust estate if Laura did not exercise her power of appointment) would go to a foundation created by Johnson, the Belton Kleberg Johnson Foundation. So the 1999 will essentially left 1/2 of his estate to his foundation, and gave Laura control over whether his children and grandchildren would get any of the other half.

Johnson’s daughters and grandchildren were not pleased with the estate plan created by Johnson’s 1999 will, so they brought suit contesting the will, alleging that Laura had exercised “undue influence” over Johnson to get him to sign this will. The jury found that Laura had exercised undue influence. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The court also affirmed the trial court’s award of $6.1 million in attorneys’ fees to the lawyers for Johnson’s children and grandchildren.

Additional appeals and fights will undoubtedly follow.

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