The Howard Hughes Estate: The Fake Will and a Crazy Gas Station Adventure

Howard Hughes Estate

Howard Hughes died April 5, 1976. His Estate was worth an estimated $2.5B (in today’s dollars, approximately $55B USD, adjusted for inflation). 

During Hughes’ life, he held or acquired interests in Hughes Aircraft Company, Trans World Airlines (TWA), RKO Pictures, the Hughes Tool Company, KLAS-TV in Las Vegas and KXAS-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth, the Desert Inn and the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and a lot more.  

There was also a movie made about him, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, which was far too long, and made you want to take a shower afterwards. 

Following Hughes’ death, some interesting Court challenges regarding his Estate occurred. One was by Melvin Dummar, a gas station owner, who claimed that in 1967, Dummar came across a dirty disheveled man lost in the desert, who needed a ride to the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas. According to Dummar, this disheveled man asked him for a ride, Dummar agreed without knowing who the man was, and drove him to the Sands Hotel, about two and a half hours away. At the end of the journey, and somewhat fortuitously, Hughes identified himself, and then allegedly promised Dummar a share of the Hughes Estate. According to Dummar, Hughes then (sometime later) drafted a handwritten will (aka Holograph Will) leaving Dummar a 1/16 share of the entire Hughes Estate, valued at about $156,000,000 (about $3.5B in 2023, adjusted for inflation). Not bad for a one-way trip to Vegas.

At trial, handwriting experts testified that the Will was likely a forgery, and doubts were cast upon Dummar's credibility. Additionally, other individuals who claimed to be witnesses or have knowledge of the Will’s existence provided conflicting accounts, further complicating the matter.

Other problems with the Will included: 

  1. There were no witnesses; 
  2. The handwriting was suspect; 
  3. Hughes incorrectly spelled certain family member’s names (which was unlikely to occur); 
  4. Hughes left a portion to the LDS Church. Howard wasn’t a member of the LDS Church;
  5. Hughes appointed an Executor who hadn’t worked for him since the 1950s, and who left on poor terms.

In 1978, Dummar's claim was dismissed. A jury determined that the Will was a forgery and that Dummar had likely fabricated the story. The jury’s reasoning, I suspect, was frankly that it was the 70s and back then, you could give rides to hobos all day long, and no one else ever got $156,000,000 – so I think that had something to do with it.

Nevertheless, Dummar maintained his story until his passing in 2018. Even FBI agents still worked on the matter years later. 

Dummar’s story became a movie “Melvin and Howard”. I think I may have spoiled the ending.

The moral of the story is that if you come across a disheveled man asking for a ride to Vegas, it could turn out to be the most financially beneficial car ride of your life. Of course, that’s not legal advice, but this seems to be a better financial strategy than buying lotto tickets.

If offering hobos at gas stations rides isn’t your thing, perhaps you might want to consider a Will. Your estate might not be at the same level as Howard Hughes, but in the eyes of your loved ones, you and your gifts to them will always be precious and appreciated.