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Hearing Starts For Whether Hawaii Heiress Needs Conservator

AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
Abigail Kawananakoa testifies in court in Honolulu on Monday, March 9, 2020. The 93-year-old Native Hawaiian heiress doesn't need anyone to handle her estate because she isn't dead yet, she testified Monday, March 9, 2020.

A 93-year-old Native Hawaiian heiress doesn't need anyone to handle her estate because she isn't dead yet, she testified Monday during a hearing to determine whether she needs a conservator to oversee her $215 million trust.

Abigail Kawananakoa’s fortune has been tied up in a court case since her 2017 stroke. Her longtime lawyer, Jim Wright, argued the stroke left her impaired, and he stepped in to assume the role of trustee.

Kawananakoa said she’s fine and fired Wright. She then married her partner of 20 years, Veronica Gail Worth, who later took her last name.

Abigail Kawananakoa inherited her wealth as the great-granddaughter of James Campbell, an Irish businessman who made his fortune as a sugar plantation owner and one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.

In the ongoing battle over her wealth, a judge last year ordered a hearing to determine whether she needs a conservator. Her lawyer filed a motion saying that the hearing should be closed to the public. The Associated Press, Hawaii News Now and Honolulu Civil Beat argued against closing the hearing. A judge ruled that portions dealing with medical or financial information would be discussed behind closed doors.

The hearing got underway Monday with Dr. David Trader, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, whose testimony wasn't open to the public.

The judge opened his courtroom for the beginning of Kawananakoa's testimony. The hearing is expected to last several days.

Megan Kau, an attorney representing Kawananakoa's former housekeeper, asked if Kawananakoa wanted to be addressed as “princess.” She said said she preferred, “Ms. Abigail.”

Native Hawaiians consider her a princess because she’s a descendant of the family that ruled the islands before the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893.

They have been closely watching the legal wrangling over her trust because they are concerned about the fate of a foundation she set up to benefit Hawaiian causes.

When Kau asked if Kawananakoa understood who her trustee is, she said, “Well, I'm not dead yet, so what do you mean trustee. Who needs to handle my estate if I'm still alive."

In 2018, a judge ruled Kawananakoa lacks the mental capacity to manage her trust, appointed First Hawaiian Bank to serve as trustee and removed Wright.

Wright had appointed three prominent Native Hawaiian leaders to serve as board members for the $100 million foundation Kawananakoa created in 2001. The foundation is participating in the court battle because it is a beneficiary of her trust.

Board members of her foundation and ex-employees say her wife is manipulating her. Lawyers for the couple dispute that.

On the witness stand, Kawananakoa said she disputes having suffered a stroke.

The judge closed his courtroom to the public when questions moved toward financial issues.

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