Mediation in Estate Disputes

Family litigation over an estate can be very nasty and often leads to permanent rifts between family members. To help mitigate this possibility, many courts prefer to send litigants to mediation.

When family members start fighting over the estate of a loved one, the battle can turn acrimonious.

There is almost no way for there to be a civil intra-family estate dispute, unless the case goes to trial before a judge.

When family members start testifying against each other it is extremely difficult for the wounds to heal. To avoid this problem, many courts prefer that families to try to solve their disputes through other methods before a case goes to trial.

A common way to do this is for the litigants to be sent to mediation which the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog discussed in “Court Rejects Effort to Avoid Settlement Agreement.”

In mediation a trained, neutral third party attempts to facilitate an agreement between the parties to the dispute. A mediator will often try to get the parties to see the other person’s side and to compromise.

Even when mediation does not instantly help the parties to reach an agreement, it often helps to clarify the issues. Many feuding family members do decide to reach post-mediation settlements.

Mediation does not always work. Some people feel that they are pressured into settling during mediation.

For that reason, it is important to have an attorney during estate litigation as courts are reluctant to allow people who have second thoughts out of any agreements reached during mediation.

Reference: Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog (Oct. 25, 2017) “Court Rejects Effort to Avoid Settlement Agreement.”

DIY Will Goes Bad

The case of a religious woman in Australia illustrates the dangers of do-it-yourself wills.

Australian woman Sandra Marie Hatton was a very religious woman. She wanted to give most of her assets to charities that carry on religious work.

Perhaps to save some money so that there would be more to go to charity, Hatton did not see an estate planning attorney to help draft her will.

Instead, she used a do-it-yourself will form.

Hatton filled it out and then proceeded to make many handwritten changes to it, as she changed her mind about which charities to benefit.

That could end up costing her estate a lot of money, as reports in “Unholy row as court decides on religious woman’s will.”

The will itself has been accepted into probate as valid.

Now, the court also has to decide which of the handwritten changes to accept as valid.

The charities who could benefit from the decisions are all eager to stake their claim and lawyers will have to be hired by Hatton’s estate to help in the case.

Do-it-yourself wills, whether purchased in a kit or online, offer people a way to save some money by cutting out estate planning attorneys.

Unfortunately, as is the case with Hatton’s will, things often go wrong with these DIY wills because the people who create them do not know what they are doing.

In the end, that DIY approach costs the estate a lot more money in the long run.

Reference: (Oct. 15, 2017) “Unholy row as court decides on religious woman’s will.”

Bank Hit with $4 Billion in Punitive Damages

For its role in administering an estate, JPMorgan was sued for damages by the widow and two stepchildren. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $4 billion in punitive damages.

Max Hopper is not a well-known figure. However, he became a wealthy man during his time as an executive at American Airlines.
He was best known for creating an innovative reservation system.

At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $19 million.

Unfortunately, he did not have an estate plan.

The bank JPMorgan was chosen to administer his complex estate. However, Hopper’s widow and her stepchildren grew angry at the way the bank was handling the estate and accused it of delaying distributions for its own benefit.

They sued in a Dallas court.

A jury recently came down with a verdict.

JPMorgan was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $5 million in actual damages and $4 billion in punitive damages, as Bloomberg reports in “JPMorgan Ordered to Pay More Than $4 Billion to Widow and Family.”

It is very likely courts will greatly reduce this punitive damage award, since the Supreme Court has previously ruled that punitive damages must be proportional to actual damages.

Nevertheless, this case highlights an important point.

Estate administrators can be held liable, if they do not faithfully carry out their duties.

The jury in this case believed that the bank was guilty of fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and breaking a fee agreement.

JPMorgan is a sophisticated entity that should have known better.

Estate administrators with less experience would be wise to seek the assistance of an attorney to help them make sure they do not run afoul of the law.

Reference: Bloomberg (Sep. 26, 2017) “JPMorgan Ordered to Pay More Than $4 Billion to Widow and Family.”

Window Cleaner Could Go to Jail for Lying about Inheritance

A strange case out of the U.K. features a window cleaner, a fraudulent bankruptcy and the possibility of jail time.

For years, an elderly woman in Britain, Julie Spalding, had been looked after by the nephew to whom she promised to leave her estate.

She was not in good health and suffered from many falls.

The nephew said she became belligerent with him and eventually kicked him out of her life.

At that time, she grew close to the man who was employed to clean her windows. He began to look after Spalding and she changed her will to leave the window cleaner her entire estate.

When Spalding passed away, the nephew challenged the will in court and eventually won, as the Telegraph reports in “Window cleaner bequeathed £300,000 by customer faces jail for failing to hand money back to her family.”

The window cleaner was ordered to pay back all of the money he had received from Spalding’s estate.

He refused, however, and instead claimed he had already lost it all.

He even claimed that much of it had been in cash in his car, when the car was repossessed. To avoid given anything back, he obtained a bankruptcy judgment.

The window cleaner now appears to have been lying.

Through many small transactions, he transferred the money to his family members for safekeeping and opened many small bank accounts to stash some of the money.

He now faces possible jail time for his scheme.

The court case has been suspended, so that he can obtain legal counsel.

Reference: Telegraph (Aug. 30, 2017) “Window cleaner bequeathed £300,000 by customer faces jail for failing to hand money back to her family.”

The Wrong Ashes

A pet cemetery and crematory in Illinois is accused of giving pet owners the ashes of animals that are not their own.

While a local animal rescue volunteer was searching for a missing dog at an Illinois pet cemetery and crematorium that also had an attached animal shelter, he noticed a smell coming from a refrigerator on the property. The closer the volunteer got to the refrigerator, the more overpowering that the smell became.

Upon opening the door, the volunteer discovered the bodies of three dead animals.

One of the animals was a cat that had been implanted with a microchip.

The data on the microchip was read by local authorities and it was discovered that the cat belonged to a family, whose pet had died three years previously.

That family had been given the ashes of a different animal already, according to the Daily Mail in “Pet cemetery is accused of giving the ashes of random animals to grieving owners after dozens of decomposing carcasses were found in a freezer.”

It is not clear why the family was given the incorrect ashes or why the cat was never cremated at all.

Unfortunately, the owner of the cemetery committed suicide shortly after the police started their investigation. Therefore, the answers as to why may never be known.

If the owner thought he could avoid any problems by taking his own life, then he was wrong.

It is still possible that his estate could be sued and his family will have to be the ones to face legal consequences, instead of him.

Reference: Daily Mail (July 30, 2017) “Pet cemetery is accused of giving the ashes of random animals to grieving owners after dozens of decomposing carcasses were found in a freezer.”

Fight Over Barry White’s Estate

When someone says that you should trust them to handle an estate and be fair to you, it is not usually a good idea to agree to that idea, without first seeing the estate plan so you know what you are supposed to receive.

Barry White passed away in 2003. To date, his estate has stayed out of the news.

For a celebrity estate it has been a smooth estate administration by all appearances. However, Darryl White, Barry’s son, has now filed a lawsuit opening up the estate to public scrutiny.

Darryl claims that when his father passed away, his widow told Darryl that she would make sure he got his fair share of the estate, as long as he agreed not to challenge the estate. For his part, Darryl claims he never even saw his father’s will to know what he was supposed to receive.

He received regular payments until 2015, when they suddenly stopped. He believes the money is now being wasted by his stepmother.

Darryl has filed suit and is demanding to see the will to know what it is he should be receiving.

TMZ reported on this story in “Barry White’s Son Sues My Dad’s Widow Can’t Get Enough of His Dough.”
In one sense, this is not an unusual story.

It is very common for children to have fights with a step-parent over an estate. On the other hand, this is an extremely unusual story.

It is not at all common for a child to trust the step-parent enough to agree to her terms, without at least seeing the estate plan and knowing what the child is supposed to inherit.

If nothing else, this case illustrates why it is an obviously bad idea for the child to agree to that.

Reference: TMZ (May 24, 2017) “Barry White’s Son Sues My Dad’s Widow Can’t Get Enough of His Dough.”

Alan Thicke Estate Battle

Alan Thicke’s sons are fighting with their stepmother over their father’s estate.

Two of deceased actor Alan Thicke’s sons have entered the probate case to settle their father’s estate with a unique claim. The have filed a claim suggesting that Thicke’s third wife, Tanya Callau, is attempting to get more of the estate than she is entitled to receive and that she has threatened to go to the tabloids, if she does not get her way.

Thicke and Callau had a prenuptial agreement and she is already set to get a sizeable portion of his estate. Her take includes 25% of his personal assets, 40% of the remainder of the estate, a $500,000 life insurance payment and she can stay in the residence for the remainder of her life.

The sons have not stated what else Callau wants and it is not known what she would tell the tabloids, if she went to them.

TMZ reported this story in “Alan Thicke Sons Go To War With His Wife To Protect the Estate.”

Other than the celebrity nature of this estate and the alleged threat to get the tabloids involved, this is, of course, not a particularly unusual estate battle.

Adult children are often at odds with a surviving step-parent and that battle often makes its way into probate court to fight over the estate. This is especially true when there are large sums of money involved.

Wealthy people who have remarried and who have children from previous relationships, need to understand how common these types of fight are. They then need to make estate plans with that in mind, if they hope to minimize the problems.

Reference: TMZ (May 16, 2017) “Alan Thicke Sons Go To War With His Wife To Protect the Estate.

Daughter Sues Mother for Wasting Her Inheritance

A case in New York is a good reminder that it is very important to make sure that trusts details are specific, in order to make the settlor’s wishes crystal clear.

The story had a Hollywood beginning. A schoolteacher and a wealthy real estate investor met through a singles ad, fell in love, got married and had a child.

From that beginning, things quickly turned south.

According to court records filed by the child of that marriage, Elizabeth Marcus, her mother refused to sleep with her father after she was born. The two divorced after a few years and the father passed away, when Marcus was nine years old.

The father did not want his ex-wife to receive any of his assets and instead left half his estate in trust to Marcus. Another child from a previous marriage received the other half.

The trust was originally overseen by Citibank, but after fighting for several years, the mother took control of the trust in 2003, according to the Daily Mail in “Daughter sues her ‘self-involved’ mother for ‘frittering away more than $13m of her inheritance – so she could buy cars and a $6m mansion next to Gwyneth Paltrow in the Hamptons’.”

Marcus is suing her mother now, claiming that her mother has stolen her inheritance to buy expensive items for herself, including a mansion and fancy cars. Most of the original inheritance is now alleged to be gone.

The mother, of course, denies the accusations.

The missing piece of the puzzle from the reports is how the mother was able to gain control of the trust, if the father did not wish her to have it. He might have neglected to be clearer about his wishes in the trust documents.

Reference: Daily Mail (April 23, 2017) “Daughter sues her ‘self-involved’ mother for ‘frittering away more than $13m of her inheritance – so she could buy cars and a $6m mansion next to Gwyneth Paltrow in the Hamptons’.”

Wills Can Be Changed

Spouses will often agree to get wills. They or their heirs believe that a contract has been entered into that prevents those wills from being changed. It is not true.

It is fairly common in estate planning attorneys’ offices, for a husband and wife to come in and declare that they both want similar wills drawn up. These wills are often referred to as “mirror image wills.”

The most common form they take, is that each spouse gets a will leaving everything he or she owns to the surviving spouse. The second to pass away spouse, then gives everything to the children or other agreed upon heirs.

Despite their seeming simplicity, these wills are an unusually common source of litigation, as the National Law Review discusses in “Contracts to Make Wills or Trusts.”

The problem starts when the surviving spouse has a change of plans and changes his or her will to divide things differently or to give the estate to different heirs.

The heirs of the original mirror image wills routinely argue in court, that the spouses entered into a contract to make the original wills. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case in almost all circumstances.

To be valid, a contract requires that a person receive some sort of compensation, called consideration, for whatever promise it is that they are contracted to perform.

In the case of mirror image wills, spouses rarely receive any form of consideration for promising not to change the will later.

It is important to understand this point, because the issue frequently comes up in estate litigation. It costs estates a lot of money, when the issue is raised.

Reference: National Law Review (April 10, 2017) “Contracts to Make Wills or Trusts.”

An Estate Battle over Support for Donald Trump

In an extremely unusual case, the children of Phyllis Schlafly are involved in a bitter dispute over her estate that appears to have started, when Schlafly decided to support Donald Trump for President.

Throughout the late 20th century, Phyllis Schlafly was a well-known and powerful force in Republican politics. She is often credited with personally defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, when it appeared to be on the verge of passing.

Although she had faded away from the public eye in recent years, Schlafly remained an important figure in Republican circles until she passed away in 2016. When she endorsed Donald Trump for President during the 2016 primaries, it might not have mattered to the general public, but it did matter in the Republican operative world.

It also appears to have mattered to her children and her estate, as the Daily Mail reports in “Children of late conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly at war over their inheritance and have been fighting since she threw her support behind Donald Trump.”

Schlafly’s endorsement of Trump created a rift between her sons, who supported the decision, and her daughter, who opposed it. The daughter claims that the decision was influenced by Republican political operative Ed Martin.

Since Schlafly passed away, Martin has been creating political action committees in her name to support Trump and the daughter has attempted to stop him. She also claims that Martin and her brothers unduly influenced their mother to change her will in their favor and to make it more difficult for the daughter to challenge the will.

This is disputed by the sons.

Reference: Daily Mail (March 23, 2017) “Children of late conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly at war over their inheritance and have been fighting since she threw her support behind Donald Trump.”