Probate disputes can affect anyone, no matter whether they are a big Hollywood star or an unknown. When a famous person dies, it is often not just the family who goes into mourning, but the general public too. But who exactly are we mourning for? It’s the person we think the celebrity was that we’ll miss, not the celebrity themselves, and sometimes, when it comes to probate, the public get to know more about their idol than most would want to.
Some famous deaths have resulted in lengthy or bizarre probate disputes. Here are just a few of them.
When Gary Coleman died in 2010, he didn’t leave a huge estate. His home still had a mortgage on it, but there were some royalties that could be claimed. The problem was that Coleman is alleged to have left three different wills, and one of them included a handwritten codicil that said everything should be left to Shannon Price, Coleman’s ex-wife. However, since they were no longer married, a judge declared that Price could not inherit, and the money instead went to Anna Gray, Coleman’s business partner.
Jimi Hendrix may only have been 27 when he died in 1970, but his estate was worth $80 million. After the music legend’s death, his father took over the running of the estate after a protracted legal battle, but when he died in 2002 it all started up again. Most of the money was left to Al Hendrix’s daughter, Janie, and nothing was left to his son, Leon. Leon and his children started a lawsuit, as they felt that Janie had influenced Al, ensuring that they were left out of the will altogether. The trial took three months, and the judge found that the will was valid, and Al had not been influenced by anyone.
J. Howard Marshall II
The name J. Howard Marshal II may not be instantly familiar to everyone, but mention Anna Nicole Smith – his wife, who was 62 years younger than him – and immediately everyone knows who the man was. When he died in 1995, Marshall’s will came as a surprise to everyone; Anna Nicole and Marshall’s son, J. Howard Marshall III, were completely left out of the will. The entire estate, worth $1.6 billion, was left to Marshall’s stepson, E. Pierce Marshall. Although both Smith and J. Howard Marshall III contested the will and filed probate disputes, both died before a final ruling could be made.
Why writing your own will could well end up in probate dispute
A recent survey on behalf of Saga revealed that around 40% of adults now have a will in place. Unfortunately, it also seems that approximately one quarter of these individuals have chosen to write their own will, without any input whatsoever from a will writing professional – running the risk of creating a probate dispute.
A number of principal reasons were stated for this, largely based on pre-conceived (and sometimes inaccurate) ideas of cost and the legal system.
The majority (37%) had felt that it would be cheaper to prepare their own will, rather than seeking legal advice and a quarter also felt that it would make the whole process quicker. Some mentioned that they were uncomfortable with sharing such personal information with a stranger, regardless of their professionalism and guarantee of confidentiality.
There are, however, a number of risks associated with writing your own will without legal supervision, which depend upon the size of the family unit, the value of the estate and simple ambiguity. Indeed, it was noted that one in fourteen respondents had either subsequently encountered a problem during probate, or knew of someone who had, after drafting a will themselves. Nearly half said that the problem had led to a dispute and 39% said this had gone on to delay the probate process.
The complexities and legal knowledge required to write a will for all but the smallest and least complicated estates, is often misunderstood. Very often, the wording included in the will is not specific enough and is open to question by family members, which often leads to a very bitter, unpleasant and costly dispute. On the other side of the coin, it is not always advisable to mention specific sums of money which should be left to key individuals, as the value of the estate may change over time.
One of the most common mistakes is to draft one will and not regularly update it to reflect family or financial circumstances. This can mean that some new family members are left out or there is not enough money in the pot to satisfy a particular bequest.
In some instances, a will has not been correctly signed and witnessed. This renders a will invalid and, instead of the executor being able to fulfil the deceased's wishes, the probate office may be forced to apply intestacy and follow the standard rules of estate distribution, according to English law.
The lessons here are to firstly, seek legal advice from an experienced will writing or probate professional when writing a will. Then, be sure to update it whenever any significant family or financial change occurs. In this way, the probate process is much more likely to be carried out seamlessly and efficiently, without any inter-family squabbles, disappointment and bitterness.
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Why funeral costs can cause disputes
The topic of why funeral costs can cause disputes was raised, in a recent interview with an undertaker.
As a society, we're fascinated by death – definitely not our own or that of someone close to us – but the mystery surrounding death and the events which take place afterwards, until the funeral has been carried out. TV programmes and books have given us an insight into the world of the undertaker.
In this particular interview, the undertaker says that tensions often come to the fore around money. Funerals carried out by her organisation start from around £2,500, with some funeral bills amounting up to a staggering £40,000.
"Sometimes rows are brewing over the will", she says. If it is evident that there are specific rifts or problems within a family even at this early stage, then it occurs to me that the contents of the will should be explained well in advance before the death of the individual. This would help to prepare all concerned, potentially prevent any probate disputes and make what is a devastating time, just that little bit easier.
As suspected, a number of the beneficiaries named in Michael Winner’s will have launched their own court cases.
Ex-mistresses, friends and Mr Winner’s housekeeper were left various assets in the will but unfortunately, it was later revealed that the film director had left behind considerable debts. In many cases, it was the beneficiaries which had been left with the burden of paying off these debts.
Dinah May, his housekeeper, along with two former lovers, have subsequently launched court cases in order to protect their own financial interests.
It was initially thought that his estate was worth almost £17 million. However, after his considerable debts are paid off, it is instead considered to be worth only £4.75 million – nowhere near enough to fund his wife’s lifestyle for her remaining years, or the high mortgages which he has left to his nearest and dearest to pay off.
Geraldine, Michael’s wife, is hoping to sell their mansion as quickly as possible, and the three other women are hoping that the executors will agree to pay off the debts which with they have been saddled, from the sale of the property. This agreement however, is not likely to be concluded within the next few months.
This week’s probate battle focuses on the estranged family of TV presenter, Lucinda Lambton.
Unfortunately, although exceptionally wealthy, Ms Lambton’s family appears to have been dogged by controversy and arguments over the years.
Her father, the late Earl of Durham, had lived in Italy for thirty years prior to his death in 2006 – driven there by a sex scandal which had broken several decades earlier.
In his will, Antony Lambton left his entire estate to his only son Ned, leaving his other children out in the cold. Three of his daughters in particular were understandably miffed and tried to force Ned’s hand by claiming they could use Italian forced heirship laws to gain a share of their late father’s estate.
The row continued for years, with Ned offering to give each sister £1 million to drop any legal proceedings. Unfortunately, the girls refused this offer and took the case to court in 2011, seeking a clawback of assets gifted during their father’s lifetime, which included Lambton Castle in the north east.
Ned has now issued a counter-writ in an attempt to prevent his sisters from citing Italian succession law, stating that the late Earl did indeed leave provision for all his other children.
Contesting a will has left a family with £150,000 legal costs; effectively wiping out any assets left by the deceased.
After her husband died twenty years ago, Daphne Burgess made out a will which left her entire estate divided equally between her three children.
Over the following few years, her son Peter and daughter Julia bickered and fell out over a number of trivial issues which resulted in them becoming estranged from each other.
Unfortunately, Daphne subsequently suffered a mini stroke in December 2006, only a few days after Julia had taken her to change her will, indicating that only her two daughters should be her sole beneficiaries.
The will was executed around a month later and Mrs Burgess sadly passed away a couple of years later; sixteen years after the death of her husband and it was not until this time that the changes came to light.
A lengthy court case ensued in which it was revealed that Julia had used £18,000 from her mother’s bank accounts for her own personal use. It was only this week that the judge ruled that Daphne’s original will should stand, with the money being split between all three siblings.
Unfortunately, legal costs to date have accrued to the region of £150,000, effectively wiping out Mrs Burgess entire estate. Her son however has nobly offered to pay these costs in full, to spare his sisters the financial stress and ensure that both his sisters receive what is due to them.