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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 28, 2008

Don Ho's family fights sale of Lanikai home

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Lanikai home belonging to the Don Ho estate on Mokulua Drive.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Dondi Ho-Costa, left, contends her late father, Don Ho, broke an oral agreement to keep the home in family.

Advertiser library photos

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The 17,000-square-foot property at 1018 Mokulua Drive that belonged to the Don Ho estate is now in escrow.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Don Ho posed with his mother, Honey, and his wife, Melva, in 1980. Melva and Don Ho had six children together.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | July 20, 1980

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Don Ho married Haumea Hebenstreit months before dying.

Advertiser library photo

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In the final months of his life, Don Ho decided to sell a family beach house in Lanikai that had served as a cherished hideaway for decades.

None of his children took him seriously. They loved the weathered, eight-bedroom home and did not think anyone would pay the $10 million being asked.

But a decision by the late entertainer's trust to pursue the sale after his death has upset the children, who say it breaks a promise Ho made to his first wife. And with the home now in escrow, what would normally have been a private family discussion will instead be held in public as one of Ho's older children attempts to halt the transaction in court.

Dondi Ho-Costa, the fourth-oldest of Ho's 10 children, filed a petition last month seeking enforcement of an "oral agreement" over rights to the home. Circuit Court Judge Colleen K. Hirai will hold a hearing on the matter at 10 a.m. today.

Ho-Costa says her father broke a deal he made with her dying mother, Melva Ho, who had wanted her heirs to inherit the property.

Melva and Don Ho had six children together. The entertainer also fathered four more children in two subsequent relationships.

Don Ho died last April of heart failure after collapsing in his Waikiki apartment. He was 76.

Afterward, the trust lowered the asking price for the 17,000-square-foot property to $6.8 million.

On the surface, the petition would indicate a rift between family members but Ho-Costa felt she had no choice, said her sister, Dori Ho, the fifth of Don Ho's children.

Going to court was necessary because the three trustees who oversee the home have not answered questions the children have asked, Dori Ho said. She said she hoped the legal maneuver would generate answers about the motive of the sale and reveal any similar actions the trustees are planning.

"My sister is not acting selfishly," said Dori Ho, a 49-year-old accounting and business manager who lives in Kailua. "We don't want it to be nasty. It isn't like that. Everyone in the family is supportive of this."

None of the children, even those born from later relationships, want the home sold, she said. They are fearful that another family home near Diamond Head could be next.

HO'S HEALTH NOT GOOD

When he first put the property up for sale in October 2006, Ho's health was not good, despite stem cell surgery a year earlier to strengthen a failing heart, Dori Ho said. No one questioned him.

"We were trying to be considerate of his health and his mental state," she said. "My father was very controlling, and he was going to do what he was going to do. We never seriously thought it would sell."

But even if it did sell, the children assumed the home belonged to Melva Ho and her heirs, she said.

"I think all of us knew that the house at Lanikai was my mother's house and for her interests," she said. "And my dad made a promise to her that it was for her. We never thought it was not."

Don Ho's official biography, released last December, contradicts that. On page 128 of "Don Ho, My Music, My Life," which he co-authored with Jerry Hopkins, Ho states he kept the home for Haumea Hebenstreit Ho, whom he married seven months before his death.

"That's Haumea's house," Don Ho is quoted as saying. "When I kick the bucket, that's her house."

Ho-Costa, a 50-year-old clothing designer who lives on Kaua'i, would not discuss the petition. "I would like to talk, but I can't," she said.

Neither would Hebenstreit Ho, or the trustees overseeing the sale Ed Brown, Jace McQuivey and Charles P. Rettig.

But the petition outlines the history of the dispute.

Don and Melva Ho purchased the Lanikai home at 1018 Mokulua Drive in 1971.

In 1999, Melva became gravely ill. She still lived at the home and remained married to Don, but by this time the two had lived apart for several years.

"Concerned about her health, Melva investigated the possibility of divorcing Don in order to secure an inheritance for her children," the petition states. "Don was aware of Melva's investigation, and he opposed the plan to divorce."

According to the petition, Don Ho wanted to refinance the property to finance business dealings at the time, something that Melva opposed.

They reached "an oral agreement" in May 1999, a time when Melva's health was deteriorating fast, the petition states.

Still seeking to safeguard her children's inheritance, Melva agreed in her waning days not to seek a divorce and not to oppose her husband's wish to refinance the Lanikai home.

"Don, in return, after the refinancing, would place the home into a trust for Melva's benefit for her life, and then for the benefit of her children thereafter," the petition states.

During the final weeks of her life, Melva Ho believed this would be carried out and signed paperwork giving Don Ho sole ownership of the home, the petition states. She died on June 8, 1999.

Afterward, Don Ho transferred ownership of the Lanikai home to the trust he had created several years earlier a breach of his promise to Melva Ho, the petition states.

REFUGE FOR FAMILY

Dori Ho said family members never envisioned this scenario. For as long as she can recall, the home has served as a refuge for the entire family, she said. Melva Ho picked out the house just as her husband's career was taking off.

"My mom went out there to raise her family and get away from everything in show business," Dori Ho said. "We have had many, many family gatherings and family parties and lu'aus for kids and grandkids over there."

The home also has served as a kind of family memorial.

After Melva Ho died, a funeral was held at the home and her ashes scattered offshore. Some of Don Ho's ashes also were scattered off Lanikai in a private ceremony following his Waikiki service.

Attorney Douglas C. Smith, who represents Ho-Costa, said Melva Ho believed a written, legally binding agreement would follow her death and preserve the family home for her six children.

"We believe Melva had in mind a new trust so it would lock it down," Smith said. "She was hoping there would be something in place so she could be assured her wishes could be carried out after her death."

Smith said the oral agreement between Don and Melva is enforceable in court. However, he wouldn't elaborate on his rationale.

At tomorrow's hearing, the judge will be asked to enforce the oral agreement by creating a new trust for the home.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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