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July 25, 2014

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Jury choice starts, stops in NY heiress will trial

NEW YORK — A court fight over a reclusive heiress' $300 million estate was abruptly put on hold Thursday as jury selection started, and then quickly stopped, in a trial that will examine a fortune made from Montana copper mines and the founding of Las Vegas.

Hours after attorneys began questioning prospective jurors for a potentially two-month trial on the validity of Huguette Clark's will, a judge stopped the selection process so she could decide whether attorneys for an arts foundation should participate in the case. The disputed will establishes the charity.

It's unclear how soon Manhattan Surrogate's Court Judge Nora Anderson might rule.

The childless, briefly married Clark was 104 when she died in 2011, having chosen to spend the last 20 years of her life secluded in a Manhattan hospital instead of in her palatial properties. She owned the largest apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue, an oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a manse on 52 acres in New Canaan, Conn.

Clark signed two wills within six weeks in 2005. The first left most of her estate to distant relatives.

The second cut them out and left her money to arts charities, a hospital, a nurse, a goddaughter, doctors and others. Among the charities: a foundation to transform her Santa Barbara home, called Bellosguardo, into a museum housing artworks, musical instruments, rare books and other items from her collection. That's the foundation at issue in the judge's upcoming ruling.

Clark's relatives want the later will invalidated. They say it's a product of manipulation by the hospital, the nurse, Clark's lawyer, her accountant and others.

The beneficiaries say it represents Clark's true wishes, noting that she had minimal contact with the nearly two dozen relatives who are seeking a share of her wealth. They are descendants of her half-siblings.

Clark's father, U.S. Sen. William A. Clark, was one of the richest Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He initially made his fortune from copper mining in Montana and moved onto other ventures, including establishing a Nevada railroad town dubbed Las Vegas.

The county that now surrounds the gambling capital, Clark County, is named after him.

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