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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Johnson V. Johnson by Barbara Goldsmith | LibraryThing

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  We know it’s painful and really shouldn’t watch, yet the grinding and twisting of the family members, bashing each other and causing pain and suffering to each other, has a salacious interest that draws the reader in for more.   It’s truly a Bleak House.

Americans suffer from the conflict of two myths:  the lottery get-rich-quick syndrome versus the Puritan ethic of hard work and avoidance of luxury.  The result of this struggle means that we love to see the rich suffer and be unhappy despite, or especially because, of all that money.

This Johnson family will battle presents a good case for why inheritances over, say $1,000,000, should be taxed at 100%.  Not to mention a lesson in why there should be better oversight over the trustees. It’s a sad story of kids fighting over huge amounts of money they have done nothing to earn.  The whole idea that a will could be successfully contested makes a mockery of the legal system.  Johnson had a battery of lawyers drawing up the 48 page will.  The children, after his death, didn’t like the result so it was challenged in court.  It wasn’t fair,” was their argument. The lawyers didn't care, they were making millions off the battle.  So why bother with a will if a court can intervene and change how the money is allocated?  Just go straight to probate and let the court decide.  Or, as I noted above, tax it all at 100%.

The trusts were set up in a rather bizarre fashion so that the children were skipped and the benefits devolved onto the grandchildren.  They were also designed in such a way that control of the huge corporation remained in the hands of the family and not stockholders which provided  substantial tax benefits.  The trustees were virtually untouchable and exerted control at the expense of everyone but themselves, making themselves quite rich.

The book is structured in an unusual way, laced with snippets of interviews with the family members, often contradicting each other, always hostile.  It sometimes feels disjointed with little sense of connectedness or linear feeling. Lots of interesting detail, but little of substance.  You feel empty, sad, bewildered, and not a little angry at the selfishness and stupidity of nearly everyone.

The first part of the book is background, family history, setting the stage for the longest trial relating to a will in US history.  When the elder J. Seward Johnson died in 1983, he left the bulk of his estate to Basia Johnson, his most recent wife, who was 42 years his junior.

The trial occupies the last section and here the  anomalies were most apparent.  One juror was heard to exclaim how she couldn't live on $12 a day and what was she to do. She was being asked to sit in judgement on a family, the individual members of which had a net worth of $50 to $100 million each and were fighting over the distribution of another $500 million.  In the end, the trial, which lasted 17 weeks before it was settled, was hog heaven for the more than 200 lawyers who participated and who shared more than $24 million in legal fees. There were over 300,000 pages of documents.  Had it gone to the jury (many of whom reported being totally appalled at the time they had spent for very little money when` a settlement ultimately resulted) no matter who had won, there would have been decades of appeals until, most likely, all of the inheritance had been transferred from the defendants and plaintiffs to the lawyers.  Even lawyers who observed the case thought it represented a nadir of American trial law. I would disagree.  We haven’t seen the bottom yet.

Audiobook that’s good shower listening.  The dirt can be washed off immediately.

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