High Profile Estate Battles

Being famous is no guarantee that once you shuffle off your mortal coil, your nearest and dearest will be all sweetness and light toward each other. Nor is it a guarantee that they’ll actually respect your wishes. And sadly, there doesn’t even need to be a great amount of wealth for these battles to take place. Take these famous high profile estate battles, for example…

Michael Jackson

Jackson’s will and living trust instructed that 40% of his estate was to be divided among his three children. His mother, who was the children’s guardian, would receive 40%, and various children’s charities would get the remaining 20%. However, his brothers and sisters had other ideas, including claiming that the will is a fake, that the executors are embezzling funds, and even alleging conspiracy. Jackson’s siblings are not the only ones to have levied accusations; the IRS claims that the executors of the estate deliberately undervalued Jackson’s assets, and that an inaccurate tax return qualified for a gross valuation misstatement penalty. In effect, this means that the government can double the 20% penalty for underpayment. While the executors valued the estate at $7 million, the IRS claim the figure is just over $1.1 billion, and that the government is owed more than $700 million in taxes. Although Jackson had allegedly engaged the services of an estate planning attorney, experts are of the opinion that his living trust is not something that experienced estate planning lawyers would have drawn up.

Gary Coleman

Probably best remembered for his role as Arnold Jackson in the sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, former child-star, Coleman, despite being practically bankrupt, left three wills when he died in 2010. Had he employed an estate planning lawyer, the ensuing court battle, in which in which his ex-manager, his housemate, and his ex-wife (against whom, Coleman had taken out a restraining order) all claimed to be sole beneficiaries, may have been avoided. It was ruled that the entirety of Coleman’s estate, which consisted of his ashes, occasional royalties, and a mortgaged house, would go to his housemate.

Dennis Hopper

When the Easy Rider star died in 2010, he was part-way through an acrimonious divorce, and had applied for a court order, stating that his spouse was not allowed within 10ft of him. This didn’t however, prevent her laying claim to Hopper’s estate – a claim which ultimately failed. Fortunately, the late actor had the foresight to consult an estate planning attorney, and had drawn up a living trust which stipulated amongst other things, that the former Mrs Hopper was not to attend his funeral, and that she was to have no control over their nine year-old daughter’s inheritance.

Sonny Bono

Bono was one person who really should have used the services of an estate planning lawyer. When he died in 1998, the former pop-star-turned-congressman left no will or living trust. His widow not only had to deal with settling his estate but also with claims from a man alleging he was Bono’s illegitimate son, and from his ex-wife, the singer, Cher, who maintained that he still owed her money from when they got divorced in 1975.

James Brown

‘Godfather of Soul’, Brown, hadn’t updated his will since 2000, and between then and when he died in 2006, he’d not only remarried but also had another child, neither of which were provided for… although, it transpired that Brown’s widow had actually married him bigamously. Brown did however, have the nous to engage an estate planning attorney to draw up an estate plan; in it, a charity for the education of disadvantaged children in Georgia and South Carolina was to inherit the bulk of his estate. Brown had also set up a $2m education fund for some of his grandchildren but had left nothing to his ‘wife’. Unfortunately, in 2009, South Carolina Attorney General, Henry McMaster, went against the wishes of the late singer, and awarded less than half of the estate to the charity. A quarter went to his ‘widow’, with the rest to his grown-up children. However, in 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that McMaster was wrong to go against Brown’s estate plan, and overturned the settlement, the implication being that if it had been allowed to stand, it might deter others from bequeathing their estate to charity in case their wishes were so easily ignored too.

And then there’s Abraham Lincoln…

Although not by any means a high-profile court battle, or in fact, any kind of court battle, it’s nevertheless interesting to note that our 16th president, a lawyer himself, died in 1865 without leaving a will. Lincoln’s son, Robert, wired trusted family friend, and Justice of the US Supreme Court, David Davis, to advise him of his father’s death, and also wrote, “Please come at once to Washington, and take charge of my father’s affairs.” Davis obliged, and was appointed administrator of the Lincoln estate, refusing to take any payment for his services. By 1867, the estate had been settled, being divided equally between Lincoln’s widow and their two surviving sons. Lincoln’s widow was also offered an additional cash allowance, which she declined.

As Lincoln’s family demonstrate, dignity can be maintained in the face of tragedy, and just because there’s an estate up for grabs, it doesn’t mean that family members will automatically start fighting over it. That being said, to lessen the chances of loved ones coming to blows, it’s never too early to engage the services of estate planning lawyers, who will be able to draw up estate plans, and other documents such as wills and living trusts to help ensure that in the event of your death, your wishes are followed. If you would like to speak to an estate planning attorney, don’t leave it until it’s too late, call Richard Cary Spivack today on 718-544-1000 today for a free consultation, or send over an email.