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After 100 Years, It's Time for Brazil's Correa Family to Divvy Up a $12 Billion Estate

updated 04/12/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/12/1982 01:00AM

If your last name is Corrêa," proclaimed a 1977 advertisement in an Argentine newspaper, "$4 million is waiting for you in Brazil." To grasp the impact on the Spanish-and Portuguese-speaking world of this and similar notices, it helps to understand that Correa is a garden-variety surname, equivalent to Smith or Jones. Not surprisingly, would-be beneficiaries named Corrêa have surfaced all over Latin America, Spain and Portugal. But the action continues to be centered in southern Brazil. There, thousands of claimants are hoping to certify themselves as heirs to an eccentric plantation owner named Domingos Faustino Corrêa, who died in 1873, leaving his fortune frozen for 100 years. The estate, which has been managed by government-appointed executors, is now worth $12 billion. The question of who does and who does not deserve a slice of that astounding pie is so complex that the state has assigned a special judge, Carlos Roberto Nunes Lengler, to sort out the claims. He will sell the vast Corrêa lands, bank the proceeds, and ultimately divide them among those proving they are heirs.

In his Porto Alegre chambers, stacked with 16,000 pages of documents relating to the case, Judge Lengler wisely refuses to comment until he has handed down his decision later this year. But lawyers say at least 4,000 people appear able to substantiate claims, making each theoretically eligible to collect $3 million.

"It's been a virtual flood," says José Cícero Biglia, a lawyer from Campinas in the state of São Paulo, whose office has received 20 inquiries a day for the past four years. With 3,000 clients in 12 Brazilian states, Biglia could conceivably earn as much as $900 million from the case (10 percent per client). But the whole clamorous business is beginning to get to him. "I work 17 hours a day with no time for anything else," Biglia complains. "I'm changing my home phone number. I can't take the desperate calls any longer."

The Corrêa family patriarch, Domingos Faustino, was a nasty man who ended up killing his brother José in 1851 in a squabble over land. Years before, Domingos had become wealthy after discovering gold on his property. He solidified his fortune by marrying a millionairess and building towns on the vast tracts of land he owned, which now lie on both sides of the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. During Brazil's 1865-70 war with Paraguay, Domingos set up 38 slaughterhouses to feed his country's army and was rewarded by Emperor Dom Pedro II with the knightly title of comendador. Just 14 days before his death at age 82, the childless Domingos, in a final irascible gesture, altered his will to disinherit his eight brothers and sisters (a needless snub; all were dead) and to specify that no one in his family could lay claim to his estate for a century.

Subsequently the 68 children of Domingos' brothers and sisters went their prolific ways and linked the family name to 178 others (by José Cícero Biglia's count). To further complicate the search for heirs, Corrêa itself can be spelled at least two other ways: Correia and Las Correas. Lawyer Biglia spent months tracing genealogies in church records and municipal archives. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his office contain bright watercolor sketches of assorted Correa family trees. If a claimant presents birth and marriage records, some dating back 180 years, Biglia by now can determine his or her legitimacy in less than 10 minutes.

The real problem with the Corrêa estate is not so much the heirs as the squatters. The bulk of the $12 billion fortune is not in bullion but in land. It includes virtually the entire downtown areas of the Brazilian port cities of Pelotas (pop. 260,000) and Rio Grande (150,000), plus 52 large plantations and miles of beaches. There are also a 90,000-acre forest preserve and a 600-foot waterfall on the Rio Negro where Uruguay wants to build a hydroelectric plant. Even the farm of the mayor of Pelotas belongs to the estate. "The mayor knows it," says lawyer Biglia, "and he knows he'll have to leave when the time comes."

Perhaps. But will thousands of others, including the area's most prominent citizens, agree to vacate or buy back farms, homes, schools, stores and buildings they and their families have used for 100 years or more? Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: The childless misanthrope Domingos Faustino Corrêa has fathered a mess beyond even his most benighted dreams.

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