More than five years after the late billionaire Howard Hughes died, the division of his vast estate was finally determined today in a small Texas courtroom.

After seven weeks of testimony, some of it carried out in a circus atmosphere, the show finally closed tonight when a Harris County Probate Court jury decided that the paternal heirs are three granddaughters of Hughes uncle, Rupert Hughes, and two of the uncle's stepchildren.

The verdict means the three sisters, Chris Roberts, 57, of Cleveland, Beth DePould, 56, of San Francisco, and Barbara Cameron, 55, of Los Angeles, each will get 6 1/3 percent of the estate.

The one living stepdaughter, Avis Hughes McIntyre, 80, of Montgomery, Ala., will get 4 3/4 percent of the estate, as will the heirs of her late brother, Rush.

The value of the estate has been conservatively estimated at $500 million.

The three sisters had been challenged by nearly 600 people, claiming that their mother, Elspeth, was not Rupert's legitimate daughter.

"I knew all along my mother was legitimate," said Roberts. The money makes me happy, she said, but "it makes me happier that my mother's name is cleared."

DePould said she was delighted with the decision but had not given much though to what she would do with the money.

Cameron joked about the lawyers getting most of the proceeds and then said, more seriously, "Our grandchildren will get it."

One of their attorneys said the money probably would be distributed in about two years, even considering the inevitable appeals and other legal roadblocks that remain. Generally in such cases, attorneys work for a contingency fee of about 40 percent of the proceeds.

McIntyre, a widow, was not present when the verdict was reached.

The magistrate in the case, Probate Judge Pat Gregory, had already determined that Hughes' paternal heirs, about 16 first cousins or their estates, would receive 71 1/2 percent of the estate under a pretrial agreement between the paternal and maternal sides of the family.

And so, with what seem to be only a few snippets of legal red tape yet to be clipped, the final chapter in the legendary life and death of the reclusive billionaire ended. The final chapter was as bizarre at times as the life of the man who made it all happen. Here's how it went these last seven weeks in Judge Gregory's courtroom.

The mother of Howard Hughes was Allene Gano Hughes. The daughter of a prominent Dallas judge, she was the embodiment of charm and refinement. She died in 1922 at age 39 from complications after minor surgery.

The woman before Judge Gregory almost 60 years later was in her early 60s. The left side of her curly hair was blond, the right side black, apparently a combination of two different wigs. On top sat a straw hat festooned with multicolored feathers. Her silver blouse bore a large Confederate flag on the back. Over that she wore a gold lame jacket, which was split down the back to reveal the flag. She had on tan silk culottes along with sandals, but no hose. One paid of glasses perched on her nose and a larger pair of sunglasses covered those; another pair was stuck on the brim of her hat. She was weighed down with necklaces, bracelets, charms and assorted turquoise jewelry, and large, long looped rings dangled from her ears. A camera hung from her neck. She claimed she had dated presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and had been caught by her husband in bed with Elvis Presley. She said she is the mother of Howard Hughes, come to claim her rightful inheritance.

She was not alone. More than 600 alleged wives, sons, daughters, first, second, third, fourth and fifth cousins lined up in Gregory's small courtroom on the fifth floor of the family law center on the north edge of downtown Houston with their hands out, trying to claim a share of the Hughes fortune. And those were just the ones who showed up in person or sent a lawyer. Gregory held his hands about two feet apart to indicate the size of the stack of letters he received from others claiming to be Hughes long-lost relatives.

What brought this strange parade of petitioners to Houston was the lure of money, lots of it. Howard Robard Hughes Jr. died on April 5, 1976, on a flight from Acapulco to Houston, where he was to have medical treatment. Estimates of the Hughes estate have run from a low of $168.8 million by Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith (hired by the executors of the estate for whom a low valuation would mean lower federal estate taxes) to $465 million by the Internal Revenue Service to $1.1 billion by the state of California. But a large part of the estate consists of prime undeveloped land in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, whose value is inestimable until it is sold. So on one really knows how much the entire estate is worth, but it's enough, as one lawyer said, "to buy you a chicken-fried steak with cream gravy."

In Texas, the estate of someone who dies without a valid will is divided among any surviving spouse and children. The first contender out fo the chute was former Hollywood starlet Terry Moore. She said she married Hughes in 1949 at the age of 20 in a civil ceremony performed by a ship's captain in international waters off California. The records of this marriage were dumped overboard, she said, and the marriage was kept secret to protect her Hollywood image as a navice, innocent young thing. Further, she claimed, Hughes fathered her child, who was born in Germany in 1952 but died shortly afterward. Since then though, she has married and divorced three other men, including Glen Davis, the famous Army half-back. Gregory threw out her claim without even letting a jury consider it.

Then came a woman who called herself Alyce Hovsepian Hughes, from Atlantic City, N.J. She burst into tears outside the courtroom when asked to supply identification before being admitted. She said Hughes married her in 1946 and asked her to take the name of Jean Peters (the actress, Hughes second wife, whom he married in 1957 and divorced in 1971. Hughes married his first wife, Ella Rice, in 1925 and divorced her in 1929. No children resulted from either marriage).Later, Alyce Hovsepian said, Hughes raped her when she was in a mental institution. Gregory dismissed her claim.

The last alleged spouse to present her claim was a 71-year-old woman who called herself Alma Hughes. She was not represented by an attorney but Gregory allowed her to speak. In a thin, wavering voice that sometimes rose to near hysteria and cracked with tears, she claimed that:

* Hughes fathered her child who was born in 1954 and died in 1965.

* Hughes married her in Dec. 12, 1973, only after she agreed to be artificially inseminated by him. She was artificially inseminated at the same time she had hemorrhoid surgery, and at the age of 64 bore Hughes a son. The child was given up to charity.

* Hughes lost a foot in his famous near-fatal air crash in 1946 and had a peg leg. His autopsy, which made no mention of this, was falsified, she claimed.

* Hughes had 17 midgets working for him.

* And finally, claiming God as her witness, Hovsepian said, Hughes was "awfully rough in bed with a woman." (On the other hand, Terry Moore has said in interviews that Hughes was the best lover she ever had.)

Gregory threw out Hovsepian's claim.

Donald E. McDonald of Los Angeles, who also calls himself Richard Robard Hughes, claimed Hughes adopted him in 1953 in Ventura, Calif. McDonald happened to be married at the time. Gregory dismissed his claim.

Then came the stangest one of them all: Claire Benedict Hudenburg, from Las Vegas, who claimed to be Hughes' illegitimate daughter. She was not present in court, and the only testimony given was a sworn deposition read by a lawyer. Among other things, Hudenburg claimed that:

* She is clairvoyant, can hear things from another world and was a king in three previous incarnations.

* Harold Robbins' novel, "The Carpetbaggers," revealed to her that she is Hughes' daughter.

* She bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Hughes, lived next door to him in the Bahamas in 1969 and then moved to a house in California once owned by Hughes. Someone put arsenic in her swimming pool and cyanide on her roof, and "25 men with great big necks" followed her around Las Vegas trying to take her picture. Why would all these things have occurred if she were not indeed Howard Hughes' daughter, she wondered. Gregory was not persuaded by the force of her logic.

But there were people with serious claims. With no surviving spouse, child, parent, or sibling, the estate was divided between the mother's side of the family and the father's, beginning with direct descendants from the grandparents. Those inheriting from Hughes' maternal side were nailed down in court without any opposition. Hughes' mother had one brother and two sisters. The brother had five children and the sisters had four each.

One of the cousins is Will Lummis, 52, whom some liken to his cousin Howard. A former lawyer with the Houston firm of Andrews, Kurth, Campbell and Jones, Lummis runs what remains of the Hughes empire from Las Vegas. He is credited with reversing the sinking financial fortunes of the Summa Corporation, the holding company of most of the assets of the estate, including several Las Vegas gambling casinos and hotels, and land. He is currently battling the IRS over a $274.7-million federal estate-tax bill. So far, the estate has paid out in excess of $100 million to the federal government, raised from the sale of casinos, land, and Hughes Air West.

Determining the paternal heirs was another matter altogether, and that's the question the jury had to consider. Three people claiming to be grandchildren of Hughes' uncle and two of the uncle's stepchildren and two contending sets of cousins fought it out before Judge Gregory and the jury. The three grandchildren said they descended from Hughes' late uncle Rupert Hughes, the celebrated Hollywood author.

One of the groups of cousins, numbering around 400, are second, third, fourth and fifth cousins descended from Hughes' great-grandfather Joshua. They come mostly from the Midwest -- Iowa and Missouri, with a few from Texas and California. All of them were rounded up by the Nashville genealogist Bill Jones. They claimed Uncle Rupert had the mumps as a child and was sterile. They claimed his daughter Elspeth, the mother of the contesting grandchildren, was the product of an affair by Rupert's first wife, Agnes. Thus, they said, there are no true descendants from Hughes' paternal grandparents and the estate should pass to descendants of the great-grandparents.

About 100 people showed up claiming to be the great-grandfather's descendants. A typical interview between thwm and a reporter went something like this:

"Who are you?"

"We're the true blood heirs."

"Why are you here?"

"We're the true blood heirs."

"Can you prove it?"

"Oh, you ought to see the evidence we've got."

"May, I?"

"You just wait."

But they faced a major barrier: the "presumption of legitimacy" given in Texas to any child born while the father is married to the mother, as was the case with El-speth. to prove illegitimacy there had to be "clear and convincing evidence" the father was sterile or did not have "access" to the mother when conception occurred. The cousins relied on an application by Rupert to the Sons of the American Revolution on which he left blank the space in which children were to be listed, and the testimony of several cousins who said they heard Rupert say he could not have children.

The other group of cousins, numbering about 160, mostly from Alabama, with a few from Tennessee and Texas, said Uncle Rupert had a daughter, all right, but it wasn't El-speth. They said it was a Lelia Babcock Hughes, who, they say, drowned in a swimming pool at Rupert's house in California in 1921. The leader of this group is Robert C. Hughes, a silent, dour man who teaches agriculture at a high school in Alabama. He claimed that Hughes' grandfather. Felix T. Hughes, was really Felix Moner (rhymes with loaner) Hughes. The story goes back 150 years and takes three hours to explain, he says. In about five minutes, it goes something like this:

Felix Moner and Felix T. were friends in Kentucky. One of Felix Moner's brothers killed one of Felix T.'s brothers. The two Hughes families, not related, split over that and the Civil War. Felix Moner, whose sympathies lay with the north, left his family and joined Felix T.'s family and took his name also. Somewhere down the line, the first Felix T. died, leaving Felix Moner as the only Felix T. The new Felix T. then got into a fight with his old father over money. This precipitated a split in the old and new Felix T. Hughes clans, with the old group going to Alabama, from whence the Robert C. Hughes group of cousins is descended. The new Felix T. Hughes went to Missouri, giving rise to the group of 400 cousins -- and Rupert and Howard Hughes Sr.

The story of Rupert's stepchildren is not as complicated as the tale of the Felix T's and Felix Moner, but it is peculiar. In addition to Agnes, Uncle Rupert had two other wives. The second one, Adelaide, had two children, a daughter, Avis, and a son, Rush, when she married Rupert. Adelaide committed suicide on a cruise to China by hanging herself in her cabin. (Rupert's third wife, actress and writer Patterson Dial, died from and overdose of sleeping pills.)

It was claimed that Avis Hughes McIntyre, and her brother, Rush, were adopted by Rupert. It turned out that Rupert never legally adopted them, but they were included in the pretrial agreement between the maternal and paternal sides of the family.

The three sisters who successfully claimed to be children of Rupert are Roberts, the wife of an industrial engineer from Cleveland, a talkative live wire who goes by Chris -- "I hate Agnes"; "Beth" DePould, smart and energetic, the wife of a San Francisco engineer; and Cameron, serious and determined, the wife of a Los Angeles real estate broker. Each one of them stands to get about $32 million. Chris says she never met or saw Howard Hughes. Beth says she saw him once: "It was in New York. The elevator opened and there he was; but we didn't get in." Barbara says she was introduced to Hughes once in a Los Angeles restaurant by Rupert.

Chris works at a skating rink in Cleveland. What would she do with her money? "I'm going to buy the place where I work", she said, "and burn it down."