Feb 5, 2015

County nets $127,000 from late Cody area billionaire’s estate

Park County wasn’t named in the will of the late billionaire R.E. “Earl” Holding, but it still ended up as an indirect beneficiary of his sizable estate.

Holding — the former owner of Sinclair Oil, the Little America chain of hotels, the Sunlight Ranch, ski resorts and other enterprises — was a Park County resident at the time of his April 2013 death. As a result, portions of his estate were settled through a probate case in the county’s district court.

The fees for processing the estate and passing roughly $254.8 million of Holding’s Wyoming assets to his wife cost the estate — and netted the county — roughly $127,500, court records say. The money can be spent however the county government wishes.

The late billionaire R.E. 'Earl' Holding owned Sinclair Oil and the Little America hotels, pictured here in Cheyenne last month. Photo by CJ Baker
The fees are set by Wyoming law; the law directs district courts to charge a $5 fee per $10,000 of value in the estate. It is, in effect, a .05 percent tax on the assets being transferred.

As an illustration of how extraordinarily large the case was, the single payment from the Holding estate was equal to all the probate fees collected by the district court over the past 14 years, county budget records show. Put another way, the value of Holding’s estate was about equal to the roughly 1,500 other estates that have been processed since the middle of 2000.

Probate isn’t always necessary, as there are other ways to pass along assets upon your death.

“In this day and age of trusts, a lot of these estates don’t go to probate,” Park County Clerk of District Court Patra Lindenthal said recently.

Setting up a living trust or co-ownership of an asset through joint tenancy are two ways in which property can be automatically transferred to a designated person without having to involve a court.

The value of Holding’s estate was roughly equal to the 1,500 other estates that have been processed in Park County's District Court since the middle of 2000.

By all appearances, the $254.8 million estate represented only a fraction of Holding’s assets, with the vast majority not subject to Wyoming’s probate process. Forbes Magazine — which described Holding as “one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs” — estimated his wealth at roughly $3.2 billion at the time of his death; Forbes believed he was the 139th richest person in the country.

Holding was also figured to own more land than perhaps anyone else in America, having around 400,000 acres in the west.

“He amassed his fortune in the same way pioneers built vast ranches — through hard work and patience, one piece at a time,” the Salt Lake Tribune wrote in 2000.

It started in the middle-of-nowhere, Wyoming, running the Little America motel and cafe between Evanston and Green River. He and his wife, Carol, turned the then 12-room motel into a much larger complex that was once the country’s largest-volume service station. He later built a second Little America in Cheyenne. Other hotels followed, as did acquisitions of properties ranging from refineries to ski resorts to ranch lands.

Holding may be best known locally as the owner of the sprawling Sunlight Ranch in Montana and in Wyoming north of Clark. The ranch, an affiliate of The Sinclair Companies, operated a feedlot just west of Powell for decades before shutting it down in 2008.

Holding died in Salt Lake City, but was buried in Wyoming, calling his property in Sunlight Basin in the Shoshone National Forest as home. He claimed Wyoming as his residence in a rare 2000 interview with SKI Magazine, saying, “It’s still where we have most of our things.

“I have two refineries in Wyoming, a lot of our pipelines are in Wyoming and a lot of ranch land, some production of gas and oil, two Little Americas,” Holding told SKI, adding with tongue-in-cheek and a laugh that, “It's the biggest part of our empire.”

Holding died in Salt Lake City, but was buried in Wyoming, calling his property in Sunlight Basin in the Shoshone National Forest as home.

Despite his prominence, Holding had a reputation for being an extremely private person. Holding’s wife, Carol Holding, and the attorney for his estate, Scott W. Meier of the firm Hathaway and Kunz in Cheyenne, convinced District Court Judge Steven Cranfill of the need to make many of the documents in the probate case confidential.

“The court concludes that the deceased’s family has a compelling privacy interest as well as a business reason in keeping the probable character and value of the estate’s assets confidential,” Cranfill agreed in one order, saying that in contrast, the public had “little or no interest” in the information.

However, documents filed publicly in the case later on revealed the overall value of the estate, primarily made up of shares of The Sinclair Corporation and a bank account.

The $127,480 payment from Holding’s estate to cover the district court fees was deposited into Park County’s general fund in October.

Judge Cranfill officially closed out the probate case on Jan. 13.

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