Famous Feuds and New York Estate Planning Lessons for Every Family

January 30, 2012

A Reuters story late last week suggested that while estate planning feuds of the famous usually involve millions, the principle issues are the same as those faced by all local residents. Every case must be evaluated individually, but the same main issues are found again and again. That is why our New York estate planning lawyers urge residents to visit with experienced professionals when making preparations because they have likely seen similar issues in the past and can help anticipate problems that might come up down the road. As this latest story explained "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." This applies whether one has $50,000 or $50 million.

For example, second marriages often create planning problems. When crafting an estate plan, one must balance the needs of the second spouse with the children of the first marriage. If one doesn't do it, as the author notes, "you're basically buying a litigation case." For example, the longest estate litigation case of the last century was that of Anna Nicole Smith. She was a second wife of a billionaire investor. The children from the man's first marriage engaged in a prolonged battle to ensure that Ms. Smith did not receive any substantial portion of the man's wealth. The case was still not resolved with Ms. Smith herself passed away.

Family businesses also present common issues for those in all income brackets. Much family wealth is wrapped up in a business. Often some of the children participate in the business while others do not. This often creates significant estate planning issues regarding who gets what share of the business. One of the most well-known examples of this is that of the Koch family in New York. The patriarch had created a fortune after developing a new cracking method in oil refinement. However, upon his death the man's four sons engaged in a prolonged legal dispute over control of the business. As the article notes, "there are a lot of ticking time bombs in family businesses that creates litigation."

Many judges involved in these sorts of cases have explained that they believe estate litigation is on the rise. The fact patterns of the cases are consistent: second marriage issues, family business struggles, and similar situations. Those involved also report that the size of the estate is often of no consequence. Estate disputes are not only the concern of millionaires.

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