Articles Posted in Probate

One of the many goals of proper estate planning is to prevent family feuding. This is obviously to ensure that the worry, stress, and cost of these legal battles is avoided. But on top of that, done right, avoiding costly disputes saves an immense amount of time. It is well known that the legal system often does not act swiftly. It is important not to underestimate the simple benefit of having property matter resolved right away after a passing, instead of making surviving loved ones wait months or even years–preventing them from obtaining necessary funds and moving on with their lives.

The prolonged nature of the resolution exists anytime there is no estate planning (probate takes time). But the delay is especially pronounced where there is feuding and legal battles are fought.

For example, the Patch recently reported on a delay in a hearing for one high-profile estate fight over the property of painter Thomas Kinkade. We have previously blogged about the legal fight between Kinkade’s estranged wife, four children, and live-in girlfriend. The girlfriend has produced two handwritten wills which seem to leave Kinkade’s house to her while establishing a museum. The wife and children contest the wills.

The heirs of art dealer Illena Sonnabend faced a very unique problem after the woman’s death in 2007. One the most valuable pieces of her estate was a work by Robert Rauschenbeg known as “Canyon.” The 1959 piece of art is a collage that include various three dimensional materials, including a stuffed bald eagle. Canyon would prove to be a sticking point in the heir’s attempt to settle the estate–a process which ultimately dragged on for five years.

Taxes Always Due

For estate tax purposes, the value of artwork in an estate is appraised and the tax is owed based on the total appraisal value. Sonnabend’s estate had a significant number of pieces and the artwork taken together was valued at over $1 billion. According to a Wall Street Journal story on the case, this led to an estate tax bill of about $471 million. The two heirs to the estate sold about $600 million of the artwork to pay for that bill.

Unfortunately, there is a tendancy to assume that so long as end-of-life affairs are reasonably spelled out, then everything will go as planned. The reality is that when making estate plans it is usually best to reiterate Murphy’s Law: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” It is only with that comprehensive planning, taking into account all possible scenarios, that true peace of mind is afforded. This need to be clear about taking into account all contingencies is even more prudent when larger estate are invovled. That is because money often brings out that most aggressive side of others. Even wishes that seem straight-forward might be complicated in the heat of a feud involving money or valuable proeprty.

The Kevorkian Example

Take, for example, a recent story on the estate of controversial doctor Jack Kevorkian. Shortly before the assisted-suicide proponent was to serve his stint in federal prison, he loaned at least 17 paintings to a museum. He ended up serving eight years before being paroled in 2007. He died about three years later at age 83. The executor of Kevorkian’s estate explained that it was his wish for the paintings to be returned to his estate and used to supplement the inheritance for his neice.

The importance of selecting a trustee to manage a trust or otherwise handle the affairs of an estate is hard to underestimate. There is a misconception that this task is always a “one-time” affair, with the individual (or individuals) taking care of various paperwork details after a death, and then being done. That is often not the case. Depending on the circumstances of one’s estate planning, the role of a trustee or others involved in these matters can last for years–or even decades.

One situation where that is vividly displayed is with celebrity estates–or those with extensive intellectual property rights. For example, the Hollywood Reporter discussed a legal fight this week involving Madonna and the estate of Marlon Brando. The disagreement stems from royalties that the estate claims it is owed after Madonna used images of Marlon Brando during her concerts. The images are a staple of Madonna’s performance of the song “Vogue” in which the lyrics include Brando’s name.

According to the story, Madonna planned to pay $3,750 to the estate every time that the image was used (once per concert). This fee was the same paid to the estate of a few other celebrities mentioned in the act–James Dean, Greta Garbo, and more.

It is a common TV and fiction fantasy: your life changes in the blink of an eye when you discover that you’ve inherited a fortune from an unknown relative who passed away. While the dream is far-fetched and rarely based on true-life, it is not entirely without precedent. Every once in awhile a story breaks involving an individual who inherits a significant sum of money due to state intestacy rules from someone to which they were related but did not really know.

Latest Case

For example, the Las Vegas Sun reported this week on the latest developments in a case where a substitute teacher found, to her surprise, that she was slated to inherit upwards of $10 million from a distance relative.

An estimated one in every twenty homes contains a copy of the work of Thomas Kinkade–the painter best known for traditional works of gardens, cottages, streams, and small town centers. Considering the mass marking and popularity of his work, Kinkade was able to acquire a considerable fortunate over the years. Unfortunately, Kinkade died this April at the age of 54. Like many others in his situation, disagreement has reigned in the resolution of his estate.

Kinkade was married, but his wife filed for divorce two years before his death. He has four children with his wife. For the last year and a half before his death he lived in his home with his girlfriend.

Estate Dispute

When an individual uses only a will (instead of a trust) and does not have professional advice, there is a greater chance that the intended beneficiaries will not receive the property that the testator (the person who creates a will) wanted them to receive. For one thing, the will itself may not be executed properly. At other times, the beneficiary may pass away before the testator’s death without the will being updated. At still other times there may be unique complications with the ability to give in certain ways. Take, for example, political gifts.

Leaving Money to a Political Party in a NYC Will

Many community members have strong attachments to a political party and may want to leave part of their estate to that party. However, this presents some complications, because there are special rules–campaign finance laws–that often apply to what gifts can be given to these parties (or candidates). It is crucial to take those rules into account. Otherwise, the final decision is left up to the court, with extreme uncertainty as to where the money will actually go.

Many local families create their New York estate plan with potential family feuds in minds. History is replete with examples of siblings, parents, children, in-laws, and others being torn apart following disagreement regarding the passing of assets at the death of a loved one. Legal challenges following a death are very common. The legal fights are even more likely to occur when a significant amount of assets are involved, there is surprise about how they will be distributed, or inadequate estate planning has been conducted forcing the matter to be decided in the courtroom. Many parents have made the mistake of assuming that “the kids will figure it out” when it comes time to pass on assets. Unfortunately, that exact mindset has led to entire families descended into dispute. The fighting can last for years or, in some cases, even decades.

For example, last week Forbes touched on the case of the famed civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. MLK had not created an estate plan before he died; he did not even have a will. As a result, the distribution of his affairs was left entirely to the courts with the predictable family fighting that ensued–and still continues. Some time ago the King family children engaged in a series of back-and-forth legal battles following the creation of a corporation to manage King’s estate. The lawsuits lasted for years before a settlement was finally reached between the children.

However, the possession of certain assets continues to be fought by the corporation (The Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., Inc.). Recently the estate sued the son of one of the Reverend’s former secretaries (an old family friend) claiming that the secretary possessed historical documents related to MLK. The documents apparently include handwritten letters, speech transcripts, newsletters, and similar materials. According to the secretary, Dr. King gave her the documents over the years, and she always assumed them to be her personal property. He apparently never asked for them back over the decade and a half that the secretary worked for the Reverend.

Families across the country will come together to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday next week. As a Forbes article recently explained, the holiday is a perfect time to discuss estate planning issues, because the planning is all about helping out one’s family. One of the main goals of an estate plan is to ensure that surviving family members will be taken care of and not forced to endure stressful, complicated, and costly procedures to get financial affairs in order following a death.

One way to broach the topic over Thanksgiving dinner, say the article authors, is to frame the talk in the context of high-profile celebrity stories. The article includes a list of the “Top 5 Celebrity-Based Estate Planning Conversation Starters.” Kim Kardashian’s story made the list to highlight the role that marriages have on one’s estate. The socialite ended her seventy two day marriage last month. Of course all marriages (short and long) have significant effects on one’s estate planning documents, and estate planning attorneys should be consulted when a marriage is entered into or ended. It is smart to make appropriate changes even before a divorce is finalized; otherwise the estranged spouse may still retain control if a death occurs before the separation is official.

The feud over Michael Jackson’s estate is also ripe with lessons. It was explained how the music pop star created a trust before he died and named his mother, three children, and personal charity as beneficiaries. Two trustees were named to help manage the trust. Our New York estate planning lawyers help clients in our community create these legal entities all the time. However, besides creating the trust, it is vital that the trust be “funded.” Funding is the process where assets are moved from an estate and into the trust. Failure to do this makes the trusts seemingly ineffective. That is where problems have arisen for the Jackson estate.

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