Nina Wang – A Sweet and Sour Legacy

If you’re talking about kidnapping, ransom, murder, forged Wills and the richest woman in Hong Kong – then you’d be talking about Nina Wang.  Richer than the Queen of England and more colorful than Madonna, this eccentric billionaire could be seen around town wearing plaid miniskirts and pigtails dyed electric blue. No swank sushi bar for this parsimonious celebrity, she lived on a salary of $400 a month and was a regular at McDonalds. She was so popular among the masses that she was dubbed “Little Sweetie” for her likeness to a much loved Japanese cartoon character.

Born as Kung Yu Sum in 1937, she grew up in Shanghai with her childhood friend Teddy Wang. Teddy’s father, Wang Din-shin, owned a paint and chemical company, and after Teddy’s family fled Shanghai during the revolution and moved to Hong Kong, Teddy sent for her.  Though Teddy’s family never liked her, because supposedly,  she was stubborn and could not cook, the two nevertheless married in 1955. Nina was only 18-years-young. They worked tirelessly together, never had children and built the chemical and pharmaceutical company, Chinachem,  into a one of the largest private property developers in all of Hong Kong.  As is so often the case, part of their fortune was attributable to a little luck; they purchased properties once deemed worthless, held them and after a population explosion in the heart of the city,  their “worthless” properties once developed became the kern of the major suburbs of Hong Kong.

But despite being billionaires, gossip circulated at how that the couple would turn up at lavish dinner parties with Tupperware containers to take food home with them.  It was this penny pinching attitude, this miserly behavior that was, in part, the cause of Teddy’s first abduction. Teddy refused to pay for bodyguards, and in 1983 both Teddy and Nina were kidnapped by a Taiwanese gang.   Nina was released so she could pay the ransom of $11,000,000 while Teddy was left shackled to a bed. After Nina paid the ransom in full, Teddy was found alive stuffed into a refrigerator. After  hearing Nina didn’t haggle with the kidnappers and instead paid the ransom in full, Teddy was angered.  On April 10, 1990 only seven years later, Teddy was kidnapped again, but this time Nina did haggle, paying only $30 million – half of the requested ransom.  Her haggling didn’t work out well – Teddy would never be seen again, nor would his body ever be found. Eventually, six men involved in the kidnapping would be incarcerated, and one of the kidnappers claimed they bound and gagged Teddy before throwing him off a small boat into Hong Kong Harbor.  One has to wonder, would he be alive today if had hired bodyguards? Was being chintzy part of his undoing?  Water under the bridge now, but in retrospect he clearly should have employed security guards.

Since Teddy was missing, but not declared dead, for the next seven years, Nina assumed the helm of Chinachem and was so empowered because she was the agent on the Power of Attorney that Teddy had executed before his disappearance. In 1999 when Teddy was legally declared dead, Nina became  Chairwomen of Chinachem and, seemingly, heir to the Chinachem empire. But, you’ll recall Teddy’s parents thought Nina was stubborn and didn’t cook and, almost 50 years after their marriage, Teddy’s father filed a lawsuit seeking to set aside the Will which named Nina as the beneficiary. Instead of mourning in peace, instead of having peace, her time was about to be consumed in probate litigation,  fighting with her father in law, Wang Din-Shin.  The issue: which of Teddy’s Wills were to govern the distribution of his estate. The first Will signed in 1960 directed that the empire was to be split between Nina and Teddy’s father.  However, Teddy’s father then claimed that he found a subsequent Will signed in 1968 in which Teddy disinherited his wife (supposedly because she had an affair with one of their warehouse workers) and left everything to him.  Nina insisted that she and Teddy had long since reconciled and she produced a Last Will executed in 1990, just before his second kidnapping and that Will left everything to her.

Nina’s life was about to sour.

On November 21, 2002 after over 170 days of trial, the High Court held that the 1990 Will, which was witnessed only by the butler, was a forgery and therefore 1968 Will governed. To add insult to injury, Nina Wang was then charged with forgery, attempting to pervert the course of justice and had to post bail of $7 million. A disheartened Nina Wang appealed the Courts decision, and lost. She  then appealed to the Court of Final Appeals and finally in 2005, after more than 15 years since Teddy’s second kidnapping,  the Court of Final Appeals set aside the lower court’s rulings and approved the 1990 Will making “Little Sweetie” the richest woman in Hong Kong.

But the stress took a toll on Nina. In January 2004 while in litigation with her father in law,  she was diagnosed with cancer and by December 2005 her treatment was limited to palliative  care.  On April 3, 2007 Nina Wang only 69-years-old, died. Her legacy  as the colorful, quirky, billionaire of Hong Kong would quickly be overshadowed by the acts of the Antagonist.

Though loved by the Hong Kong masses, their time to mourn was interrupted by sensationalism. Only days after her death, Hong Kong’s next probate litigation saga was getting cued up in the press and again it involved the family Wang. The legacy of Nina & Teddy’s fortune’s would, once  again,  be decided not by their own hand and seal, but by a Court of Competent jurisdiction.   Nina Wang’s estate, valued somewhere between $4 to $12 billion, depending on the valuation of the real estate holdings, would either pass to Tony Chan, her Feng Shui paramour, or to the Chinachem Charitable Foundation to support charitable causes that she had been so committed during her lifetime. A tale of two Wills would ensue;  the 2002 Will favored the Chinachem Charitable Foundation vs. the  2006 Will which favored Tony Chan. Both were offered for probate, and this time, Nina’s intent had to be judicially determined. To the victor goes the spoils.  The war was on and allegations of fraud, undue influence and lack of capacity were aired publicly and years later Nina Wang’s last wish would be judicially determined.

As the story unfolded, shortly after her husband’s second disappearance, Nina had consulted Chan Chun Chuen (known as Tony Chan), a former bartender, turned feng shui master, to help find her missing husband. Perhaps the relationship started off innocently, but according to Chan, it progressed from there to cooking, traveling, building model helicopters and romance. From an outsiders point of view, Nina Wang seemed easy prey and in need of a spiritual lift and Tony Chan seemed a skilled hunter in need of an economic lift – a deceased husband’s worst nightmare. Supposedly the two, in furtherance of their respective needs,  dug over 80 feng shui holes on Chinachem properties all over the city in order to bury gems and truckloads of cash worth millions.

Chan, a man of modest means before meeting Nina,  lived the life of a kept man after meeting Nina.  He resided in a $30 million dollar home and owned a publicly traded company called RCG funded by an angel, his little sweetie. Chan acknowledges that his affair with Nina occurred at a time when he himself was a newlywed, but denies any other wrongdoing. He claimed  the riches bestowed upon him by Nina were just  payments for feng shui massages and other such services and gifts as well as commercial investments in his Company.   Chang argued that the October 26, 2006 Will, which he had nothing to do with,  was signed by Nina and properly witnessed. This document known as the 2006 Will, Specific Bequest Will or Feng Shui Will left the Teddy & Nina Wang fortunes, to this fortune teller.  Gag me with a chop stick.

The Plaintiff, The Chinachem Charitable Foundation, offered the 2002 Will for probate. This Will’s authenticity was not in question, and if admitted to probate, would direct the Chinachem billions to pass to the Chinachem Charitable Foundation with directions to provide for her in-laws, siblings and their children.  The Plaintiff claims that neither Nina’s siblings or Chinachem executives knew of any spiritual or romantic relationship between the two, and that Nina Wang was busy giving millions to the Foundation, appointing it’s board and finalizing the mission statement for the Foundation.  Accordingly any bequest for Tony Chan, would be a departure from her long stated intentions. The Foundation argued that the 2006 Will was executed at a time that Nina was ill, lacked capacity and was unduly influenced by Chan. The Chinachem Team surmises that if Nina executed the 2006 Feng Shui Will, it was only for feng shui purposes so that she would receive eternal life, but was not intended as her Last Will & Testament.

The fate of Nina’s empire was heard in the High Court of Hong Kong, Probate Action #8 of 2007 in the Court of First Instance. The case captioned,  In the Estate of Nina Kung, also known as Nina Wang, between Chinachem Charitable Foundation Limited, Plaintiff and Chan Chun Chuen,  1st Defendant, began in May of 2009.  The case was heard by Honorable Judge Lam who, after forty days of trial,  wrote a detailed 260 page decision covering 935 points.  Summarized below are some of the issues the Court would decide:

  1. whether the 2006 Will was executed by Nina;
  2. whether the 2006 Will was the same document the witnesses saw her sign on 16 October 2006;
  3. whether Nina had the requisite capacity to execute the 2006 Will;
  4. whether Nina knew and approved of the contents of the 2006 Will
  5. whether Nina had testamentary intention in relation to the 2006 Will;
  6. whether the execution of the 2006 Will was obtained by undue influence of the 1st Defendant;
  7. whether the 2006 Will was only a partial will.

On February 2, 2010 the Court issued a Judgment and began with the following observation:

“1. The late Nina Wang (“Nina”) was the Chairwoman of the Chinachem group and was one of the richest woman in Asia. But wealth cannot offer an answer to all the problems in life, particularly in the wake of the final rest that every human being has to face eventually. Rather, wealth may bring about a problem as to how one should deal with it after one’s death. Making a will is an option. However, when there is more than one wills (sp.) it may lead to litigation. This is what happened in this case.”

 

The Court noted; the long marriage between Nina and Teddy, that they worked long hours and had no children,  that Teddy was kidnapped twice, the second time resulting in him being declared dead, that Nina was both patriotic and  philanthropic, that she spoke often of leaving the Chinachem fortunes to the Chinachem Charitable Foundation, that the validity of and authenticity of the 2002 Will was not in question and, she and Tony Chang had a relationship.

The Court ultimately did not find Tony Chan to be a credible witness and concluded that he was prepared to say anything to advance his claim, that he lied and withheld evidence.  In addition to lacking credibility, the Court found he had exerted great influence over Nina at a time when she was weakened both by her illness and the treatments. Further, and yet another nail in Chan’s coffin,  the Court reasoned that the purported Will leaving the Wang empire to Tony Chan would be entirely inconsistent with Nina’s public statements that she would bequeath everything to charity hoping to advance certain charitable causes including educational, medical, and agricultural needs.

The Court took great care in hearing from handwriting experts to determine if the 2006 Will was a forgery and if another document intended as a Codicil to Nina’s 2002 Will which created a specific bequest to Tony Chan was enforceable.

The Nina Wang Signature

A handwriting expert, referred to as Mr. Radley, initially identified 17 features in the questioned signature of Nina Wang, that he regarded as significant, some of which had no matches to other specimens he was provided with.

Feature number Description of feature Judge’s findings
(i) & (ii) The left-hand downward stroke of the “N” and its slightly angular turn to traverse horizontally The 2 features are  dependent and should be treated as one  3 matches found out of 81 specimens.  This is a “more significant” feature
(iii) The rounded pen movement before the right hand upward stroke of the “N” 3 matches found out of 81 specimens.  This is a “more significant feature
(v) The relative proportion of the “I” in “Nina” and the subsequent looping up/down pen movements form “na” 5 matches found out of 81 specimens.  This is a “more significant” feature
(vi) The “I” dot in “Nina” 2 matches found out of 81 specimens.  This is a “more significant” feature.
(vii) & (viii) The “T”-bar in “T.H” The 2 features are in substance one feature and should be considered together.  No match found.  This feature falls outside the range of variations, though “less significant” than the other features mentioned.
(ix) The downstroke of the “T” and the mimicking full stop next to it. This feature is relatively prone to variations, not helpful for the purpose of identification 9or non-identification.
(x) The “H” in “T.H.” Not appropriate to split this into 3 sub-features, as the 3 elements are combined to form the whole character of “H”.  No match found.  This feature is out of range.  This is a “more significant feature.
(xi) The slope of the initial downstroke of the “W” 5 matches found out of 82 specimens.
(xiv) The rhythm of “an” in “Wang”, instead of the mimicking pen strokes in “an” and the stroke leading to the top loop of “g” of “Wang”, the “an” was written in a significantly different manner with a diversity of slopes. No match found.  This feature is out of range.  This is a “more significant” feature.
(xv) The top loop or eyelet of the “g” in “Wang” The top loop of the “g” manifested itself in a great variety of forms in the specimens, not a very distinct feature and does not add much to what feature (xiv) already demonstrates.
(xvii) The stepped alignments of the four components of the signature The specimen signatures show a great variety in pattern for this feature, not a distinctive feature for the purpose of identification or non-identification

The judge considered both handwriting expert reports and dedicated approximately thirty pages of his written decision to these expert opinions and concluded that the Nina Wang signature was a highly skilled simulation.

After considering all the facts, testimony and law, the Court ruled that the 2006 Will that left the empire to Tony Chan was a forgery. Allegations of another document, a Specific Bequest Will, or a Codicil which also was supposedly executed by Nina leaving him a fixed sum certain, also known as a bequest, could not be located, was not offered for probate, so  it’s of no consequence. Accordingly, the 2002 Will which left the fortunes to Chinachem was accepted into probate, and Mr. Chan was ordered to pay the costs incurred by the Chinachem Charitable Foundation.

Not satisfied with the Honorable Judge Lam take, Chan appealed.  Ironic that on February 14, 2011 Little Sweetie’s 2002 Will was upheld and  Chan’s charms soured. Thereafter, Tony Chan was in a deep hole, and no ritual would right his wrongs. The  publicity of losing the trial, losing the appeal, angering the masses, then the having to post bail, and it seemed Chan’s good fortunes were long over. But once again, it’s the tax collectors who deliver the final blow. Presumably watching the media circus and reading the tabloids and the Court Judgments, the tax collectors went after Tony Chan seeking income tax on the transfers of wealth that Chan himself testified were just payments for feng shui services. Another Antagonist falling on his sword.

Legacy Lesson #19: A Stitch In Time Saves Nine

After you sign your estate planning documents,  keep the original in your own fireproof safe and keep a set of copies in a separate location. Destroy prior Wills or powers of attorney that have been superceded. Let your trusted executors know how to get access to the safe in the event of your death or disability. Make sure your attorney, accountant, financial planner and or banker has copies of and access to,  not just your estate planning documents, but also any and all buy-sell agreements, business valuations, life insurance policies, deeds, titles and all current account statements. If these documents,  are then summarized in an spreadsheet including  how each asset is titled, your executors will thank you and so too will your heirs. These measures are basic, but could have changed Nina’s life – and her legacy.

Legacy Lesson #20: Respecting the Formalities of a Will Signing

The last ten years of Nina Wang’s life were consumed fighting over Teddy’s $4.2 billion estate.  Why? Because when Teddy signed his Will in 1990, only the butler witnessed his signature. It took years of litigation, 170 days of trial, losing in the lower Court, then appealing to the Court of Final Appeals before the 1990 Will was final respected. The litigation also took a toll on Nina’s life that simply cannot be quantified. Some practical counsel;   know how to sign a Will. The testator (a male signing a Will) or a testatrix (a female signing a Will) should sign in the presence of two witnesses and a notary public. The lawyer supervising the signing should establish that you’re over age 18, of sound mind, not under any undue influence and that you understand the contents of the Will. Pause before having any children or potential heirs in the room when meeting with counsel or signing documents. If the terms of a proposed Will favor the child who was in the room and participating in the discussion, any document that follows thereafter is as good as flash paper. If you anticipate any Antagonist challenging the Will take all necessary precautions. Some have a psychological evaluation completed right around the time the Will is signed to thwart a lack of mental capacity claim, some video tape the Will signing, some read a prepared statement into the record explaining in detail why an heir is being cut out. Why a billionaire would sign a Will without taking any such precautions? Simply reckless, like tossing a match into an oil well.

Legacy Lesson #21: Clarity v. Ambiguity

What Nina Wang went through trying to settle her husband’s estate was completely avoidable. The precautions are basic, though too many overlook the basics. The irony is she too exposed her estate to the same fate. If she had a relationship with Tony Chan and wanted to provide for him, she had enough wealth to do so; she had lawyers available at her beck and call. She knew what happened to Teddy’s estate, yet she dug the same hole. Had she prepared a new Will and left a fixed bequest to the feng shui cause, or to Tony Chan and documented her reason for so doing, few would blink. Yet she signed a document that could have been a Codicil or partial Will and supposedly it couldn’t be found. With her legacy on the line, and billions at stake, such shenanigans should not have occurred. Was she naïve, in love, embarrassed or the victim of a fraud? Knowing she was ill, perhaps her lawyers should have updated her Will just to insure it was in fact her last Will.

Is Nina’s story so different from you neighbors? After one loses a spouse, they’re vulnerable. Thinking the end is near, combined with the anxiety of being alone, any widow or widower could be easy prey.  A white knight, a spiritual healer or helpful neighbor can be so well received … and perhaps that’s just what the doer of good deeds seeks. So, how do you protect yourself? Again, back to basics, use your team of advisors prudently. Talk to them, email them, write them and let them know what’s on your mind. Professionals who care will understand your concerns and advise you. Once the advisors know, it’s much more difficult for an Antagonist to undermine your stated intentions. Probate Parts, Surrogate Courts, Orphan Courts, and apparently even Bankruptcy Courts spend far too much time trying to interpret the intentions of the deceased. So the best counsel is to make your intentions known to your advisors, or to your family, or those you trust, and document those intentions in an estate and business succession plan. Short thereof, heirs will be digging for riches, and legacies marred by those looking to fill their wheelbarrows.

Legacy Lesson #22: Video Taping a Will Signing

Why wonder if it’s Nina’s signature? Why pay experts, take up the Court’s time, and leave billions up to the discretion of the Court. If you have meaningful assets, and you are concerned about an Antagonist challenging your Will, there are several precautionary measures to consider, but certainly an option often dismissed as being expensive or not necessary, is in fact, not expensive and is necessary – video tape the signing of your Will. Since the signing ceremony will be on tape, better not to take an extra Xanax, or other slur, as then the video tape could be evidence that your are incapacitated or under the influence of medication, or just the crack in the door that the Antagonist looks for.