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Lessons from the Tawdry Estate Battle of the Century

Lucere Legal helps families with careful estate planning
Categories: Estate Planning

Though I hardly consider myself a follower of the tawdry celebrity stories that come out of Hollywood, they sometimes prove to hold valuable lessons for us all. I’ve written recently of the passing of Casey Kasem and Robin Williams, two polar opposites when it came to their estate planning. But one case in particular has kept everyone’s attention, going on two decades now: the death of 89 year old Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall and the calamitous court battles over his $1.6 billion estate, outlasting both of the initial contending parties—his wife of 14-months, the 27 year old Anna Nicole Smith, and his youngest son, Pierce Marshall. That case is back in the news again these days.

Attention-grabbing though that dollar amount is, the sad truth is that feuds have torn families apart for far more modest sums. Little causes more contention than money, so you must not only be sure to leave your loved ones with an estate that is enough to take care of them, but also structured so securely as to leave no room for conflict.

There’s more to learn from this story than the importance of not marrying a spouse who could be your great-grandchild. Here are vital lessons about estate planning that everyone should take with them.

1)  Choose the right attorney.  J. Howard Marshall’s estate planner of many years was never the impartial representative of the deceased that an estate planner is meant to be. Though he never faced any consequences, his reputation in court showed him to have, in the words of U.S. District Judge David Carter, “a distinct disinterest in rules or ethics.” Were the last minute changes made to the will at the behest of Pierce and lawyer truly the will of Marshall? We may never know. Find someone you can count on.

2)  Make sure private matters stay that way.  The court battles that raged on through the years put the dirty laundry of the entire family on display. It doesn’t have to be this way. The most important way to keep your family’s affairs private is to make your estate plan airtight. Adopting a trust-based plan allows you to avoid the public probate court process, among other benefits. Furthermore, if there’s no dispute—or at least no grounds for legal challenge—it won’t be forced into court.

3)  Estate battles can go on forever. Don’t let them. Remember, Marshall died in 1994, followed by his son Pierce in 2006 and Anna Nicole in 2007–Judge Carter described the situation very aptly when he said, “Time spent litigating the relationship between Vickie Lynn and J. Howard has extended for nearly five times the length of their relationship and nearly twenty times the length of their marriage.”Yet the court battle rages on as the estates continue to jockey over what remains of the money! Unthinkable time and money have gone into the keeping the fight alive—why risk your loved ones living through something similar?  Again, a solidly-constructed estate plan is key to your wishes being carried out with minimal fuss.

Call our office today at (612) 206-3701 or fill out our contact form to schedule a time for us to sit down and have a family estate planning consultation, where we can help you look at what would happen now if something were to happen to you and ensure everything passes to your loved ones in the way you want.

Image by Toby Forage (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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