Some Estate Fights Last For Decades–The MLK Example

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sued the son of one of the Reverend’s former secretaries (an old family friend) claiming that the secretary possessed historical documents related to MLK.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.

The King Estate Corporation recently sued the family when it learned of the existence of the documents. The family friends are hoping to end the legal fight early, because they presumably do not have the funds to support a prolonged (and expensive) legal battle over ownership of the documents. The Estate is arguing that the documents were given by an employer to an employee, but the family friends insist that they were gifts. Resolution of this issue will come down to what Dr. King actually intended when he handed the materials over. Proving one’s mental state is difficult at all times, let alone when it relates to events that happened half a century in the past. All of the fighting can be avoided by making ones intentions known explicitly through use of legal documents like wills and trusts.

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