When done properly, an estate plan affords peace of mind to those creating it and leaves behind a legacy for their descendants. But sometimes estate planning can go awry – and it’s usually due to eccentricities held by either the creators of the estate plan, the beneficiaries, or both. To give a good idea of how such planning can go wrong, our Santa Barbara County estate planning lawyers have put together a list of the top 5 most infamous estate planning battles.
Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” amassed a fortune worth approximately $4 billion during her time as a real estate tycoon in Manhattan. When she passed away in 2007, her will caught the attention of the national media and estate planning experts everywhere due to the unusual bequest she made: $12 million was to go to her dog, Trouble, while she left nothing for two of her grandchildren. A legal battle ensued which led to the dog receiving just $2 million from its original bequest, while the two grandchildren were awarded $6 million each.
Walt Disney’s youngest daughter, Sharon Disney Lund, passed away in 1993 and left behind a trust fund worth $400 million for her twin children, Brad and Michelle. Since that time, the twins have found themselves on opposing sides of a legal battle with their father and the trustees of the fund accusing each other of mismanagement and incompetence. The main issue comes down to the fact that the trustees claim Brad is unable to handle his inheritance because of cognitive impairments and have thus stopped paying out his share, while his father claims that Michelle, who he believes has brain damage after suffering from an aneurysm in 2009, is acting under the influence of the trustees.
The Astor family is synonymous with “old money” – but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to legal problems stemming from inheritance issues. When Brooke Astor died in 2007, her son Anthony and his son Phillip began feuding over the way Anthony handled his mother’s finances and estate in the last years of her life. Anthony was found guilty of fraud, larceny, and conspiracy stemming from accusations that he swindled his mother’s estate, worth almost $200 million, out of about $60 million through unlawful updates to her estate plan while also forcing his infirmed mother to live in squalid surroundings.
John Seward Johnson I, co-founder of Johnson & Johnson and Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center, passed away in 1983 and left almost his entire estate to his third wife – thereby cutting out his children. His children immediately contested Johnson’s will, bringing up claims of abuse and undue influence against Johnson’s widow, and were ultimately awarded $106 million out of an estate worth approximately $400 million. Legal fees for this lawsuit were estimated to total $10 million.
This case is more famous for the beneficiary than the grantor: in 1994, Anna Nicole Smith, a 26-year-old Playboy Playmate, married 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall II, an oil magnate who had a net worth of $1.6 billion. Of course, many speculated that Smith married Marshall merely for his money. When Howard died in 1995, it was revealed in his Last Will and Testament that he did not leave any money to Smith, instead leaving most of his vast fortune to his son. Smith was involved in legal battles to gain control of at least half of the fortune, which she believed she was entitled to, right up to the time of her death in 2007. The case was finally settled against Smith in 2011 – 16 years after Marshall died.
While these are all extreme cases involving individuals worth millions – if not billions – of dollars, Santa Barbara County estate planning lawyers point out that the problem in all of these cases came down to the fact that the estate plans were not set up correctly. Proper estate planning can avoid these kinds of legal messes, and it can be even more important when you’re not dealing with millions of dollars; if an estate is worth just a few hundred thousand dollars and your family goes to war, the inheritance can quickly be eaten up by legal fees.
If you have questions about the effectiveness of your current estate plan, or if you would like to set up a new estate plan that meets your needs and is created to stand up against family fighting when you are gone, give our Santa Barbara estate planning law offices a call at (805) 946-1550 to set up a consultation.