Forbes posted earlier this month on the continued squabbles over the estate of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Unfortunately, our New York estate planning attorneys appreciate that the higher the profile of the individual (and the more assets at stake), the more common an inheritance fight is to arise. That is true no matter who is involved, including a beloved icon like Rosa Parks.
This case is also a testament to the drawn-out nature of these disagreements. Parks died nearly seven years ago, in mid-October of 2005 at ninety-two years old. In 1998 she created a will and trust indicating that she wanted all her belongings given to a charitable endeavor she created. A close friend and judge were named executors, with the friend to receive 90% of subsequent royalties. Parks nieces and nephews were set to receive the remaining 10%.
The relatives contested the will and at one point the friend was removed as executor by the probate judge over claims of undue influence. Shortly before trial the parties were able to settle the matter, re-appointing the friend in her role as head of the charitable organization--the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development.
The settlement did not end the fight over the estate plan.
Disagreement arose over fees paid to those participating in the legal battle. That disagreement eventually reached the state's supreme court where a unanimous panel criticized the probate court judge and restored the plan as originally written--90% to the friend and 10% to relatives.
Amazingly, even after the high court ruling, the battle continued. That is because the one party eventually took the bizarre step of suing the probate judge charged with overseeing the estate. Allegations of bribes and other forms of cronyism were alleged. The fight is still ongoing as the party appealed the judge's decision not to recuse himself from the case.
What is the lesson for those conducting a New York estate planning?
First, the earlier plans are in place, the better. If planning is done in old age, the possibility of challenges based on capacity and undue are far higher. Also, it is vital to have the help of legal professionals who are experienced in common pitfalls in the planning. The lawyers will point out if any part of the plan is vulnerable for challenge or likely to cause complications down the road. Sometimes problems will arise no matter how well the plan was created, but identifying possible problems ahead of time significantly limits the risk of challenge down the road.
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