The big lessons from celebrity estate wars

Thu Jan 26, 2012 2:33pm EST
 
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By Amy Feldman

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Philanthropist Brooke Astor. The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. There are a few celebrities who, in death, at least in certain circles, have become as known for the litigation over their estates as for how they lived their lives. While the dollars are mind-boggling in these cases, anyone thinking about wealth transfer faces the same issues: dysfunctional families, potentially unequal positions in the family business, perhaps multiple marriages with kids from each.

We spoke with Russell Fishkind, an estate attorney and a partner in the East Coast law firm of Saul Ewing and author of "Probate Wars of the Rich and Famous: An Insider's Guide to Estate Planning and Probate Litigation," about what regular folks can learn from these high-profile estate battles.

Q: What's the most common scenario you see?

A: Hands down, most common was a second marriage, or third marriage, with children from multiple marriages. If the estate plan does not adequately provide for Spouse No. 2 and for the children from the first marriage in a way that tries to achieve equality, you're basically buying a litigation case. The two most notable celebrities were Anna Nicole Smith, who at 26 married an 89-year-old billionaire, and Jerry Garcia, who had numerous children with different women, and then, just before he died, married Wife No. 3. The first turned into the longest estate litigation case we've seen in 100 years. The second led to litigation over custom guitars, Cherry Garcia ice cream and Jerry Garcia ties.

Q: What's happens if the family is in business together?

A: A huge amount of our wealth is from family business owners, and often mom or dad runs the business, and one or two children are in it, and one or two children are not. If I'm a dentist in California, should I not get a share of the business? Or what if the son in the business gets gifted the business? There are a lot of emotional ticking time bombs in family businesses that create litigation. The most shining example of that would be the Koch brothers, who had the largest family-owned business in the United States, and feuded for decades.

Q: In the case of Brooke Astor, there was fraud. Does that happen much?

A: I see a lot of these cases. When mom is alone and weak, and one child starts caring for her, somewhere along the line they start thinking they are entitled to more than their fair share. So the person will go to UBS or Morgan Stanley, and say, 'Mom wants to change title from her to me because I'll be dealing with this day-to-day, and I'm paying for her care, and she wants me to watch her portfolio.' Invariably, what gets left out of the conversation is that because these are now jointly-titled assets, they will pass to that child, and that is also the intent of the antagonist. The titling of accounts trumps the terms of the will.   Continued...

 
<p>Seminole tribal elder Bobby Henry watches a news conference next to a photograph of Jerry Garcia at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York December 7, 2006. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES)</p>