New York Estate Planning Feud Ends for Astor Family

The New York Times reported last week on the seeming end to one of the most high-profile New York estate planning feuds in decades. For almost five years Brooke Astor’s only son was engaged in a prolonged battle to settle his inheritance and control over other portions of the family estate. The extended legal saga was yet another reminder of the perils of trying to transfer significant assets in a straight-forward, conflict-free manner.

Mrs. Astor had a fortune estimated at roughly $100 million at the time of her death. Reports indicate that Mrs. Astor had dementia in her later years, dying in 2007 at the age of 107. Three years ago her son, Anthony D. Marshall, was convicted of stealing from her. Another man who handled Mrs. Astor’s affairs was also convicted of similar crimes. Both men were sentenced to one to three years in prison for their conduct, but they remain free pending appeal. The criminal proceedings are separate legal affairs from the probate process which resolves Mrs. Astor’s estate. However, the conduct of Mr. Marshall as revealed in the criminal matter likely affected the ultimate resolution of the New York estate plan dispute.

Mrs. Astor signed a will in 2002 that left a sizeable amount of money to charity. However, the will was amended in 2003 and then twice-again in 2004. The changes essentially gave Mr. Marshall more money as inheritance and control over her estate. The legal fight centered on whether Mrs. Astor was tricked into signing those subsequent revisions and whether she was competent at the time.

A settlement appears to have finally been reached last Wednesday which may end the matter for good. The agreement essentially reverts back to the designations outlined in the original 2002 will. According to the settlement, which was ratified in the Westchester County Surrogate’s Court, Mr. Marshall will receive about $14.5 million. That is less than half of the $31 million his was originally slated to receive. In addition, he will be unable to control any aspect of the family’s charitable bequests. Per the settlement terms, $30 million will be earmarked for the Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education and other assets will be given to various parks, playgrounds, and local cultural institutions.

The settlement was negotiated by Mr. Marshalls’ attorney along with the office of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who represented the interests of the unnamed charities and beneficiaries. Our New York estate planning attorneys know that in the settling of large estates with potential charitable donations, there are often various parties with legal interest in the affairs beyond family members.

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