Last week AOL Money shared the story of yet another estate planning feud--this time involving Turkish business magnate Bernard Matthews who died two years ago when he was 80 years old. Like many others, Matthews family life did not quite fit the traditional mold. He married his wife decades ago and soon adopted three children. Later on he had a relationship with another woman who bore him a son. Still later he started a long-term relationship with a third woman, Odile Marteyn. He remained in that relationship with Marteyn until his death. Through it all he never divorced his wife, and did not marry Marteyn after his wife's death.
As it is easy to guess--the convoluted family arrangements spawned bitter feuding following Matthews' death.
From the information that has been provided so far, it seems clear that Matthews' wished to have part of his estate go to Marteyn. The estate is worth roughly $64.5 million. Part of that includes a villa in St. Tropez worth about $19 million. Matthews wrote a letter to his children outlining his wishes, noting that Marteyn "has supported me unfailingly for many years and particularly so during my recent illness. Without such support, I might not have been able to continue directing our family company for our mutual benefit."
Settling the Estate
The resolution of the situations has been far from straightforward. A large part of the problem is that different international laws are involved in resolving the matter, as property in various countries are at stake (including France and England). Tax rules and inheritance details are different in each location.
The majority of the property was split between Matthews four children, with a larger share going to his only natural born son. That son respected Matthews' wishes and intended to give his share of the villa to Marteyn. Yet the three other children are fighting the matter and do not want to give their share of the house to their father's longtime companion.
Recently, a judge ruled that there was nothing that Marteyn could do to fight the children's actions. France, where this issue was decided, has far less flexibility in these matters than the United States.
New York Estate Planning Lessons
Even though this matter was settled internationally, the ubiquity of the underlying issues mean that this case provides very clear lessons for those in New York. For one thing, the default rules in the law do not take into account personal wishes. The law is essentially a rote process that seeks to resolve matters in as simple and straightforward a way as possible. Unfortunately, family relationship are rarely simple and straightforward. That means that reliance on default rules, without unique planning, is often a bad fit.
In addition, this case is yet another reminder that, no matter what things were like before a death, money sometimes makes family members act in unique ways. Estate challenges are incredibly common. It is critical not the underestimate the risk of an estate planning fight in your unique case.
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