WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — While millionaire John Goodman's adoption of his girlfriend sparked an uproar nationwide, it also hurt the polo mogul's ability to hide large chunks of his holdings from Wellington parents who want him to pay dearly for their 23-year-old son's death.
In a recent decision, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley ruled that when a jury decides next month whether Goodman should pay Lila and William Wilson for the death of their son, Scott, it can consider the millions Goodman's girlfriend, Heather Ann Hutchins, now controls.
Previously, he had ruled that a trust Goodman created for his two children was off limits.
Because of the adoption, his girlfriend of three years now controls a third of the trust that Goodman's handlers say is worth several hundred million dollars.
"Heather Hutchins' interest in the children's trust may be considered in connection with assessing defendant John Goodman's financial resources," Kelley wrote. He called the circumstances that prompted his change of heart "surreal."
In a statement Thursday, Goodman's attorney, Daniel Bachi, said there was nothing untoward - much less illegal - about the 48-year-old's decision to adopt his 42-year-old girlfriend, who lives in Atlanta and has two children of her own.
Alluding to the possibility that Goodman could be sent to prison for 30 years when he stands trial for leaving Scott Wilson to drown in a canal after their cars collided in February 2010, Bachi wrote that Goodman's "continued availability" to oversee the trust is "uncertain."
Upset by the way the trust is being administered, Goodman adopted Hutchins so she can continue "his vision and provide oversight should he become unavailable to do so," Bachi wrote with the help of a Los Angeles press agent.
For months, the founder of the International Polo Club Palm Beach has maintained he has no control over the trust he created for the two children he had with his ex-wife, Carroll. The Wilsons' attorneys accused him of hiding his assets. In September, Kelley sided with Goodman, delivering a crushing blow to the Wilsons, who hoped to seek millions in punitive damages in addition to millions to compensate them for the loss of their son.
"It is clear that the trusts at issue are irrevocable and that (Goodman) has no ownership interest in the trust assets," Kelley wrote in September. "Moreover, (Goodman) is not a beneficiary of the trusts, has no right to receive distributions of income or profits from the trusts, has no right to borrow money from the trusts and cannot invade the principal."
In the recent ruling, however, Kelley described the adoption as a game-changer.
Because of legal battles raging in Texas and Delaware over the administration of the trust, he said Hutchins may ultimately not be named a beneficiary of it .
"However," Kelley wrote, "the court cannot ignore the reality of the practical impact of what Mr. Goodman has now done. (Goodman) has effectively diverted a significant portion of the assets of the children's trust to a person with whom he is intimately involved at a time when his personal assets are largely at risk in this case."
Bachi maintained Goodman did it to protect his children.
Seeded in 1991 with $1.5 million from Goodman, the trust's value grew dramatically when his family sold the Houston-based Goodman Manufacturing Company in 2009 for $1.4 billion, according to court documents Goodman filed in Texas to have Hutchins named a beneficiary of the trust.
Although Goodman originally agreed to let Bessemer Trust Company manage the holdings, he lost confidence in its ability, Bachi said. But he had no power to fire the firm. By adopting Hutchins and making her a beneficiary, Bessemer can't ignore her wishes.
Goodman and Hutchins also signed a separate contract that assures 95 percent of the trust's assets go to his two children, Bachi said. In addition to the roughly $5 million a year she will get from the trust, Hutchins will be paid to oversee it, under terms of the contract .
In court papers filed in Texas, Goodman spelled out what the adoption was meant to accomplish: "John adopted Heather in October 2011 through a Florida court proceeding as part of a valid and binding estate planning measure."
Such talk infuriated adoption attorneys. Adoption is meant to create families, attorney Amy Hickman said. She said she handles several adult adoptions a year, but typically it is to allow stepparents to adopt children they raised. Adoption attorney Charlotte Danciu said that occasionally, a childless elderly couple will adopt a gardener who has been like a son to them.
But both said Goodman's adoption of his girlfriend makes a mockery of the adoption process. They didn't blame Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Antonio Marin. Most adoptions are perfunctory and Marin would have no clue why the two were becoming father and daughter unless attorneys involved told him.
Hickman said the adoption could be thrown out as a sham. "It
just smells," she said.
Scott Smith, who represents the Wilsons, said he doesn't know what would happen if the adoption is invalidated. Whether Kelley would again change his mind and block the Wilsons from telling the jury about the vast wealth held in the children's trust is unclear, he said.