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Hawaiian Princess Deemed Unfit to Run $215 Million Trust

Ryan Finnerty / HPR

A Hawaii judge has ruled in the legal dispute surrounding control of a sugar plantation fortune. The details of the case read like a novel. Abigail Kawananakoa is the heir to the James Campbell trust, a collection of real estate, properties, and cash assets valued at $215 million. She is also a descendant of Hawaii's former monarchy and is considered by many to be the last Hawaiian princess. 

But the intrigue doesn't end there. Last year, at age 91, Kawananakoa married Veronica Gail Worth, her domestic partner of more than 20 years, who is 27 years junior to Kawananakoa. Shortly after their marriage, Kawananakoa suffered a serious stroke, ultimately affecting her cognitive ability. 

Following her stroke, Kawananakoa's longtime lawyer James Wright was appointed as trustee to manage the Campbell estate. After a personal falling out, Kawananakoa fired Wright from his position as trustee and sought to replace him with three others, including Veronica Gail Worth.

That set up a battle with Kawananakoa and Worth on one side and board members of the Abigail Kawananakoa Foundation, which uses funds from the James Campbell trust to aid Native Hawaiians, on the other.

Board members, including Hawaiian studies professor Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, have gone to court to prevent Kawananakoa from naming new trustees to administer the fortune. They claim that Ms. Kawananakoa is mentally unfit to make complex decisions with far-reaching financial impacts and that Ms. Worth has exercised undue influence over her wife's actions. The group has even alleged the possibility of domestic abuse on the part of Ms. Worth. Domestic workers from the Kawananakoa household joined their case with eyewitness accounts of possible abusive behavior.

Ms. Kawananakoa's lawyers maintain that her mind is as sharp as ever and that she is entirely capable of making her own decisions. An independent medical examiner backed this position to a point but did identify significant cognitive deterioration. 

In his decision, Judge Mark Browning found that Ms. Kawananakoa was competent enough to fire trustees, but not to name new ones. He upheld the dismissal of James Wright, but blocked Kawananakoa from appointing replacements. Browning named First Hawaiian Bank as trustee, giving the bank control of the fortune and the responsibility for administering the funds. First Hawaiian was named as successor to Wright in the trust's founding document.

At the time of publication, no decision had been made regarding an appeal or next steps in the case.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
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