J. Seward Johnson, son of one of the Johnson & Johnson founders, possessed an estate worth around $400 million when he died in May 1983. He was 87 years old. His wife, Barbara “Basia” Piasecka Johnson, was 42 years his junior. Basia had come to America from her native Poland with $200 in her pocket. She got a job as a chambermaid in the Johnson home. Seward and Basia wed in 1971, after Mr. Johnson divorced his second wife, to whom he’d been married for 32 years. None of Johnson’s six children—four from his first marriage, two from his second—attended the ceremony.
When their father’s will disinherited them, leaving virtually everything to Basia, Johnson’s children took the matter to court, contending the former maid had coerced her senile husband into signing his final will. The Johnson children were already multimillionaires thanks to trust funds, but the legal battle still spanned three months and dragged skeleton after skeleton from closet after closet.
And there were a lot of closets: Johnson had spent four years and $30 million building Basia her dream mansion. The children claimed she’d harangued her husband, screamed at the help, and demanded priceless art and furniture.
In the end, the lawyers reached a settlement. Johnson’s children received 12 percent of his estate—about $6.2 million apiece—and Basia got $340 million. She converted her mansion to a country club and moved to Europe. Forbes ranked her America’s 149th richest person in 2007. She died in Poland on April 1, 2013.