Howard Hughes’ net worth when he died is unknown, but he did have billions of dollars while alive. When he died, it appeared that Hughes had no direct descendants or immediate family, and he didn’t leave behind a will. After contacting his various banks, lawyers, and employees, every hotel he’d ever stayed in, posting classifieds in various newspapers, and even consulting a psychic, it appeared no will could be found.
Those associated with Hughes assumed he wanted the money to go to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It was well-known that he didn’t want the money falling into the hands of distant relatives. A battle ensued between the temporary administrator of the Hughes estate, cousin and lawyer William Lummis, and those who ran the Medical Institute. It was a multi-state war, with Nevada, California, and Texas all claiming to be responsible for the distribution of the estate, all having different laws about inheritance.
A couple of different wills surfaced, though eventually thrown out as fakes. A notable one was the three-page document that declared Melvin Dummar, a gas station attendant, was to inherit 1/16 of Hughes’ fortune. Supposedly, Dummar once picked Hughes up off the side of the road and gave him a ride to his hotel, and Hughes was so grateful that he left Dummar a huge chunk of money. In 1978, the will was thrown out as a forgery.
Next, “wives” started emerging from Hughes’ past, taking advantage of his reclusive reputation to explain why no one had heard of them before. Terry Moore, an actress, claimed to have married Hughes twice, but provided no documentation to support her assertions. She did, in fact, once live with Hughes in the 1940s, but her claim that they were not only married, but never divorced, was called into question given the fact that she married three times after her supposed marriage to Hughes.
In addition to wives, an extraordinary number of Hughes’ supposed children decided to acknowledge their deceased father. After years of struggle trying to sort the people with legitimate claims from the fakers who were in it to try to grab some of the cash, a lot of the money did end up going to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
However, a huge chunk did go to various Hughes heirs. According to the Wall Street Journal, around 1000 people have benefited from the estate, including 200 of Hughes’ distant relatives. After liquefying many of his assets, they collectively were awarded about $1.5 billion.
Interestingly, the liquidation of the estate wasn’t completely finalized until 2010—34 years after his death. The last piece of the puzzle was the Summerlin residential development. In 1996, Rouse Co. (now General Growth) agreed to buy the Summerlin land from the Hughes’ estate on a 14-year repayment plan, finally wrapping up the estate.