Barbara Piasecka was born in 1937 in Staniewicze, Poland. She died in Wroclaw, Poland on April 3, 2013, at the age of 76.
She arrived in the United States in 1968 with less than $200 in her pocket. Shortly thereafter she was hired as a cook by Esther Underwood Johnson, the second wife of J. Seward Johnson, Sr., heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune. Her cooking skills were unacceptable, so she became a maid at the Johnson’s Oldwick, N.J. estate. Mr. Johnson set her up in an apartment in 1969 and later moved in with her. In 1971, Seward divorced Esther. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Piasecka, ages 34 and 76, were married shortly thereafter.
Together, Seward and Barbara build an 140 acre estate in Princeton. She created a valuable collection of Flemish tapestries, paintings and drawings by Raphael, Rembrandt, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and 18th century furniture.
When Seward died in 1983, he left virtually all his estate, valued at more than $500 million, to his wife. He disinherited all but one of his children. The children contested the Will. David Margolick, a former reporter from the New York Times, wrote about the case in his book, Undue Influence. The case involved many twists and turns, including the children accusing Nina Zagat, the attorney who drafted the contested Will as having a conflict of interest and Barbara’s attorneys moving for Judge Marie Lambert to recuse herself from the case because of what they believed to be blatant favoritism toward the children.
Shortly before the case was to go to the jury for a decision, the case settled. Barbara Piasecka Johnson received more than $300 million from the estate, the children received more than $40 million and Harbor Branch, an oceanographic institute founded by Mr. Johnson, was awarded more than $20 million. The legal bills totaled more than $24 million. Both sides claimed victory and held parties. The judge and jurors attended the children’s party.
Barbara lived for many years after the trial in Monaco. She also had homes in Italy and Poland. She used her inherited wealth to collect and exhibit wealth art and support charitable causes. Opus Sacrum, her collection of Western religious art, was exhibited that the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland in 1990. It drew praise at a time when Poland was struggling to emerge from the oppression of Communism.
“This is a case when someone who may have acquired wealth by undue influence used it to better the world,” said Riverside estate planning attorney Dennis Sandoval. This is very unusual with this type of case. Visit his website for more information about elder financial abuse, undue influence and will contests. While at the website, register for a free one hour consultation at his Riverside law office with one of our Certified Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law Specialist attorneys, or call the law firm at 951-888-1460.
Have a question? Ask Dennis.