Last month Forbes discussed an estate feud that brewed followed the suicide death of a reality show star. Late this summer, the 47-year old star of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," Russell Armstrong, took his own life. His wife, Taylor Armstrong, had filed for divorce shortly before the death. However, the divorce was not final at the time of Mr. Armstrong's passing, meaning that per the rules of the state she was the next of kin. As such she maintained a certain level of control over his affairs--including his funeral and burial plans. Without instructions to the contrary in estate planning documents, even estranged spouses may maintain this control.
Making matters worse in this situation, it appears that Mrs. Armstrong never maintained a good relationship with her former husband's family. As a result, she did not initially tell the family about the funeral, burial, or memorial plans. The man's parents and siblings wanted his remains buried in his home state of Texas, but Mrs. Armstrong claimed that she wanted to bury him in Los Angeles. It remains unclear exactly how the ugly situation will be resolved.
Unfortunately, the burial dispute may be just the beginning. Depending on Mr. Armstrong's estate planning documents, his estranged wife may still be entitled to inherit most of his assets. That is why it is important to seek out professional help in the middle of a divorce. Otherwise, there is no telling what might happen. As the article notes, "Fights over the estate of someone who passed away in the midst of a divorce are especially common." Other recent high-profile examples include the deaths' of Dennis Hopper and Gary Coleman.
Our New York estate planning attorneys know that these complex situations occur in our area with surprising frequency. A loved one's passing is always an incredibly emotional time, and matters are made significantly worse if a spouse (estranged or otherwise) does not maintain a good relationship with the deceased's family. Traditionally, this situation is more likely to exist in second marriages. That is why there is immense benefit to ensuring that professionals are consulted ahead of time to account for potential disagreement down the road. In many cases, a neutral third party can be involved to ensure that fairness reigns no matter what the future holds. When clients in our area visit our New York estate plan lawyers to discuss second marriage planning, for example, we often recommend that the attorney be named a co-trustee of trusts to provide the necessary outside perspective.
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