$100M will be left for Native Hawaiian causes from the estate of an heiress considered last princess

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FILE - Native Hawaiian heiress Abigail Kawnanakoa poses outside a Honolulu courthouse on Oct. 25, 2019. There will be at least $100 million leftover to fund Native Hawaiian causes from the estate of the so-called last Hawaiian princess who died last year at age 96. According to court documents filed last week in the probate case for the estate of Abigail Kawnanakoa, $40 million will go to her wife. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, File)

HONOLULU – In life, Abigail Kawānanakoa embodied the complexities of Hawaii: Many considered her a princess — a descendant of the royal family that once ruled the islands.

But she was also the great-granddaughter of a sugar baron and inherited vast wealth thanks to Westerners who upended traditional ways of life through the introduction of private property and the diversion of water for industrial plantations.

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Now, more than a year after her death at age 96 and the bitter battles over her fortune in the twilight of her life, her estate has been settled. And recently finalized court documents show that after doling out tens of millions to various people — including former housekeepers, other longtime employees and her wife — there will be at least $100 million left to support Native Hawaiian causes.

Kawānanakoa cared deeply about advancing Hawaiian culture, and resolving her estate is meaningful to Hawaiians because it is the last of what’s known as “alii," or royal, trusts, which were set up by royalty to benefit Native Hawaiians, said Dr. Naleen Naupaka Andrade, executive vice president of Native Hawaiian health for The Queen’s Health System. The health system was created from a trust established by Queen Emma in 1859.

“Quite frankly, the needs of Hawaiians in education, in social welfare, in housing, in health far exceed the capacity of these trusts,” she said. “They augment what federal and state dollars should be doing for Hawaii’s Indigenous peoples.”

Many have been watching where the money ends up because of concerns about the fate of the foundation Kawānanakoa set up to benefit Hawaiians. Kawānanakoa’s trust will perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture and language, Andrade said.

According to documents in the probate case for her estate, $40 million will go to her wife. Settlements have also been reached with about a dozen other people who had claims, including someone described in court documents as her “hanai" son, referring to an informal adoption in Hawaiian culture.

Legal wrangling over Kawānanakoa’s trust, which now has a value of at least $250 million, began in 2017 after she suffered a stroke. She disputed claims that she was impaired, and married Veronica Gail Worth, her partner of 20 years, who later changed her name to Veronica Gail Kawānanakoa.

In 2020, a judge ruled that Abigail Kawānanakoa was, in fact, impaired, and thus unable to manage her property and business affairs. The estate has been overseen by a trustee.

She inherited her wealth as the great-granddaughter of James Campbell, an Irish businessman who made his fortune as a sugar plantation owner and one of Hawaii’s largest landowners. She held no formal title but was a living reminder of Hawaii’s monarchy and a symbol of Hawaiian national identity that endured after the kingdom was overthrown by American businessmen in 1893.

Over the years, some insisted Kawānanakoa was held up as royalty only because of her wealth. They disputed her princess claim, saying that had the monarchy survived, a cousin would be in line to be the ruler, not her.

She put her money toward various causes, including scholarships, medical bills and funerals for Native Hawaiians. She supported protests against a giant telescope because of its proposed placement on Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain in Hawaiian culture; donated items owned by King Kalākaua and Queen Kapiʻolani for public display, including a 14-carat diamond from the king’s pinky ring; and maintained ʻIolani Palace — America’s only royal residence, where the Hawaiian monarchy dwelled, and which now serves mostly as a museum.

“Historically significant items” belonging to Kawānanakoa will be delivered to the palace, said a statement issued by trustee Jim Wright on behalf of her foundation.

Her trust has been supporting causes dear to her, including programming at the palace such as night tours and cultural dinners, and paying for students at Hawaiian-focused schools to visit cultural sites and experience symphony performances in Hawaiian, Wright said.

After Internal Revenue Service clearance, the foundation will receive the leftover money, which Wright estimated to be at least $100 million, to fund similar efforts.

Kauikeolani Nani’ole, an educator at Hālau Kū Māna Public Charter School in Honolulu, said her school recently received money from the trust for busing to community events.

“In those small ways, they make big impacts for schools like us,” she said.

She called Kawānanakoa an “unsung alii” because she often donated to causes and people anonymously.

According to documents establishing her foundation in 2001, Kawānanakoa wanted it to “maintain, support, preserve and foster the traditional Hawaiian culture in existence prior to 1778" — the year the first European explorer, Capt. James Cook, reached the islands. That includes Hawaiian music, religion, language and art.

Andrade recently visited Kawānanakoa’s crypt at Mauna ʻAla, also known as the Royal Mausoleum State Monument, which is the burial place of Hawaiian royalty. She laid an offering of maile leaves entwined with white ginger — a flower Kawānanakoa loved.

“All of the pilikia — all of the trouble — that occurred in the last several years after she became ill: What was lost in all that was her love of her people,” Andrade said. “Her deep, deep love and the thoughtfulness she had, and the foresight she had before she became ill about wanting to leave a legacy for her people that could make a difference.”

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