High Profile Estate Disputes
High Profile Estate Disputes Offer Insight into Effective Planning
by Stephan J. Lipskis, Esq.
When someone becomes incapacitated or dies, it often can result in family fights and litigation. Unfortunately, when individuals suspect that there may be a fight upon their death they often put off the difficult conversation of estate planning until it is too late. Confronting difficult family situations head on in the planning process is the best method for creating an estate plan that comports to your intent and prevents family members from causing difficulty upon your disability or death. This article focuses on two prominent ongoing cases and discusses how a more careful plan may have eliminated or at least mitigated the dispute.
Current high profile examples of ongoing disputes related to the disability of an individual include the alleged incapacity of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and the disputes related to television mogul Sumner Redstone’s relationships with family members and paramours.
While there is ongoing litigation and many issues disputed in the Redstone matter, Mr. Redstone falls into an increasingly common category of individuals who can be described as elderly persons who are largely estranged from their family and seek companionship from other individuals. Often these new friends or caregivers and the elderly individual’s family members are left in a dispute regarding what is best for the elderly individual.
In the Benson matter, Mr. Benson attempted to change his estate plan to exclude certain family members, which prompted a lawsuit by those family members to declare Mr. Benson as incapacitated, which would undo the changes to the estate plan. The attempted change by Mr. Benson resulted in challenges to his competency to execute the documents, which put not only the validity of the documents in question, but also Mr. Benson’s ability to manage his own affairs.
While these two matters deal with very high net worth individuals, the issues at hand arise frequently and are exacerbated by poor planning. Like Mr. Redstone, many older individuals find themselves in relationships that isolate them from family members and other friends. Estate planning documents such as powers of attorney can prevent isolation or can exacerbate it. An individual seeking to isolate an elderly individual may be provided authorization under a power of attorney if they have gained the trust of the elderly individual. Upon obtaining that authority close friends and family may be excluded from the elderly individual’s life by the authority vested via the power of attorney. A properly selected agent under a power of attorney should understand the relationships the elderly individual has and seek only to maintain the elderly person’s standard of living and access to friends and family. While finding such a person is not always easy, not having an agent may be preferred to having a problematic agent.
With regard to the Benson matter, the litigation was largely a byproduct of the amount at stake. Mr. Benson’s choice to amend his estate plan would either be contested during his life or at his death, because the disinherited heirs had too much to lose. Too avoid this dispute, the problematic heirs should not have been completely disinherited. Instead providing some meaningful amount of inheritance but making it dependent upon a “no-contest” provision could have dissuaded the problematic heirs from contesting the changes in the estate plan. “No Contest” provisions disinherit persons who contest the documents or the capacity of the decedent when the document was created. By providing some inheritance, the problematic heirs have something to lose if they try to increase their inheritance through contesting the provisions of the new document. The inheritance provided to the problematic heirs can be viewed as an “insurance policy” against contests.
The adverse consequences seen in the Redstone and Benson matters may be avoided by slight modifications in an estate plan. It is important to make clear to your estate planning or elder law attorney the complex relationships you may have with your family members, caregivers, and friends. Doing so ensures that proper agents are selected, and documents are drafted in a manner that will be prevent contests when they are needed.
Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about snake venom, specifically rattlesnakes in Northern California?
Kit Kat: Well, this is very interesting. Apparently, the rattlesnakes in Northern California have an extremely poisonous venom which is very specific to each county, and possibly can vary even within highway exits. They have developed their venom over time to be especially toxic to their preferred prey—the squirrel. For their part, squirrels have not sat quietly by and merely observed this phenomenon. They have responded in kind and have evolved several evasive techniques of their own. These include squirrels teaming up to attack rattlesnakes in groups, waving snakes off with their bushy tail action, and rubbing discarded snake skin on their fur to acquire the snake’s scent, thus keeping the snakes at bay, albeit sometimes only temporarily. Squirrels also have developed, over time, increasingly stronger antibodies in their blood stream, which are amazingly targeted to withstand the bites/venom of rattlesnakes in particular areas of Northern California. This constant back and forth has resulted in a basic equilibrium, though at the moment, snakes’ venom seems a bit stronger than the squirrels’ defenses, but it has intrigued scientists. ‘It’s like a lock and a key,’ says Matthew Holding, an evolutionary ecologist at Ohio State University, and the study’s lead author. ‘Resistance is a lock and venom is the key, and I have to have the right key to open the door.’
Why is this such an important question? It’s because several thousand people a year are bitten by rattlesnakes; a few result in death. If scientists and researchers at pharmaceutical companies can better understand what is happening, they can develop better antidotes to treat snake bites when they occur to humans. (Sarah Kaplan, “Snake venom evolved to kill specific squirrels with shocking precision,” Speaking of Science The Washington Post, May 20, 2016)
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