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Having a Bon Voyage - Specifying End of Life Decisions that Lay Out Your Last Wishes

May 23, 2014,

It has been said that life is a journey, not a destination. So it makes sense that in our last days, on our final journey, we should strive to have a good one--a bon voyage.

While talking about end of life issues--particularly our own--can sometimes be uncomfortable, the best way to make sure that your end of life wishes are honored is to lay them out in writing and make sure that your loved ones are aware of them. Don't miss the opportunity to have a bon voyage--take the opportunity to set out your end of life wishes and take control of your journey.

Unfinished Life Matters
Sometimes so much focus is placed on the medical and legal aspect of dying that the personal aspects get brushed aside. However, the reality is that it is much easier to have a bon voyage if you are happy or at least satisfied when you depart. This involves taking care of loose ends and putting things right where necessary. Personal matters to consider include--

**Saying things you need to say to loved ones, friends, and others, such as "I'm sorry." "I forgive you." "Thank you." "I love you." "Goodbye."

**Determining whether you may need psychological, emotional, spiritual care, counseling, or other support.

**Writing a personal legacy or story, telling any life lessons or outlining your hopes and dream, as well as leaving any helpful advice, for loved ones.

**Creating a "bucket list," outlining any things you would still like to accomplish or setting out any goals of for your remaining medical care.

Funeral Wishes
Funeral arrangements are very personal and options vary widely--from in-ground burial, mausoleum burial, cremation, as well as other possibilities. Some planning and logistical questions include--

**Do I want to donate my organs for transplant or donate my body to science?

**Which funeral home/mortuary do I want used?

**What are my feelings regarding embalming, burial, cremation, casket, burial location?

**Who should be notified of my passing?

**Who will write my obituary and what should it say if you are not writing it yourself?

**What do you envision for a funeral--a church service, a party or dinner, a memorial service?

**Will you pre-pay your funeral expenses or where will funds be held?

**Do you want to specify a charity or other cause "in lieu of flowers"?

Medical And Legal End Of Life Paperwork
A complete estate plan typically involves the documents identified above as well as a pour-over will, a revocable living trust (RLT) or an irrevocable Medicaid asset protection trust (MAPT), power of attorney for finance, and deeds and memoranda regarding personal property. In particular, questions related to medical and/or legal arrangements include--

**Do you have a will and possibly a trust? When is the last time you looked at these documents and thought about their provisions? Do the provisions reflect your current wishes and desires for distribution of your personal and real property, as well as your other assets?

**Do you have a Living Will? Does it state your wishes regarding the type and extent of medical treatment you want in the event that you can no longer speak for yourself?

**Have you made your feelings known about matters such as "Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)" orders or your feelings on CPR? What are your feelings on palliative care and natural death? What are your feelings regarding breathing tubes (intubation) and feeding tubes? A Living Will allows you to record your wishes regarding organ donation, pain relief, funeral, and other advance planning matters. It is an important source of guidance for your health care agent.

**Have you executed a Durable Power of Attorney For Healthcare? Have you also selected a Health Care Proxy? Have you specified an alternative proxy in case your first choice is unable or later unwilling to act as proxy? A health care proxy is a designated decision-maker who will make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions for yourself. Your health care proxy should be someone with a strong personality; someone who will fight for you and your wishes.

Thinking of end of life matters can be uncomfortable and challenging, but most things are easier when we have some control over them. Expressing your wishes and making affirmative decisions regarding end of life matters will hopefully allow you to have a peaceful departure and a bon voyage.

Back to the Basics: What is the Difference Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts?

May 1, 2014,

While many New York residents familiar with and have an existing will in place in the event of their death, most people do not realize that estate planning documents extend far beyond a last will and testament. The world of estate planning documents includes not only living wills and advanced medical directives, but also trusts. Trusts offer several benefits associated with them, and come in two forms: revocable and irrevocable.

Benefits of Having a Trust
Trusts can not only provide for loved ones upon death, but they can provide for the person who created the trust during their lifetime. This is important in cases where the creator has a health issue, a mental disability or incapacitation, and other scenarios. Trusts can be administered without the need to involve a probate court, and can therefore protect privacy as to the contents of the trust. Trusts also serve as protection of assets for trust beneficiaries, and offer a wide variety of options in creating them to suit different needs.

Revocable Trusts
Revocable trusts are a type of trust that can be changed at any time. The creator of the trust could simply modify the terms of the trust through an amendment. Or, if they want to revoke the trust in its entirety, they can do that as well. In revocable trusts, the assets contained within the trust are considered the creator's assets and will be treated as such for tax purposes and if creditors exist.

Irrevocable Trusts
As one may expect from its name, an irrevocable trust is not able to be changed once it is signed by the creator of the trust. These trusts are often complex and require a special degree of care in drafting them in order to meet the creator's needs and desires for his or her estate. It is imperative to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when setting up an irrevocable trust in order to ensure your estate is properly protected, and any concerns you have about being unable to change the terms of such a trust are addressed and handled appropriately.

That being said, irrevocable trusts have a number of specific benefits associated with them. Often times, estate taxes are significantly lessened or even eliminated through the creation of an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts also offer a high degree of asset protection for the creator of the trust and the trust's beneficiaries. Both of these advantages are possible with irrevocable trusts because once the assets are placed into an irrevocable trust, the creator gives up his or her control and ownership of the trust assets.

NY Estate Planning Attorney
If you are interested in securing estate planning documents or are interested in further discussing the benefits of trusts and how they apply to you, the experienced estate planning attorneys can help you.

Undue Influence in NY & Pressuring Vulnerable Seniors

April 21, 2014,

Family feuding is all too common, and finances are often at the root. One argument often made in legal cases involves these matters is that an adult child or other close relative is abusing a position of trust and confidence with a parent to take advantage of them financially. Proving such an abuse is the challenge of an undue influence lawsuit.

Undue influence is usually defined the use of confidence for the purpose of taking unfair advantage of one with a weakness of mind (or other vulnerability). In other words, undue influence is about pressure. The question is when does pressure become excessive, and thereby amount to undue influence. In a legal case where undue influence is an issue, a court may consider a number of factors:

1. Unusual or inappropriate time of discussion of the transaction;
2. Unusual location of the completion of the transaction;
3. Insistence that the transaction be finished at once;
4. Repeated warning of the adverse consequences of delay;
5. Involving multiple individuals to apply persuasive pressure;
6. Absence of third-party advisors.

To illustrate, it is useful to consider a few real world examples:

In 2011, the children of actor Tony Curtis claimed that their father was the victim of undue influence. Curtis, redid his Will and changed other aspects of his estate plan a few months before he died from heart failure. As a result, Curtis's five children, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis, were left with nothing. The Will stated that Curtis intentionally disinherited his children, yet no reason was given. Shocked and deeply suspicious, daughter Kelly Lee Curtis sued, accusing Tony's widow Jill or others of convincing Tony to change his Trust through undue influence, fraud, or duress.

In 2009, comedian Pauly Shore filed a lawsuit against his brother, Peter, alleging the use of undue influence against their 79-year old mother, Mitzi. Mitzi suffers from neurological problems, including Parkinson's disease. Prior to her decline in health, Pauly, Peter, and their mother were joint directors of The Comedy Store, a famous Hollywood comedy club. When Peter subsequently took to managing the club's finances, Pauly requested that Peter turn over about three years worth of tax returns and financial documents. After Peter refused Pauly's request and instead fired Pauly from the club's Board of Directors. Pauly brought an undue influence lawsuit, claiming that Peter orchestrated firing Pauly from the Board by taking advantage of their mother's frail health.

Undue influence doesn't just disturb the families of the rich and famous. Too often it surfaces in the financial matters of everyday people, whether in wills and trusts, or the operation of a family-owned business. When it does, it's time to speak with an experienced attorney about your legal rights so you can protect the vulnerable from the unscrupulous.

Not Allowed to Disinherit - Spousal Right of Election in New York

March 17, 2014,

New York residents are urged to craft an estate plan so that their assets are passed on per their own wishes--and not based on arbitrary state laws. Unless you explicitly make your desires known, then all decisions will be left up to others. However, there are actually a few rare instances when the law explicitly prohibits you from making certain planning choices. These situations are not common, but it is important to be aware of them in case they conflict with your plans

The most notable rule of that nature relates to disinheriting a spouse. In most cases, the law automatically allows a spouse to inherit certain assets if he or she chooses--regardless of the specific estate planning provisions.

Marriage is deemed a special legal relationship that is voluntarily entered into under the law. As a result, state statutes include default rules that protect the relationship. This is somewhat different from other close relationships--like parent-child. A resident can always end a marriage to legally break the spousal relationship. That is why it is usually possible to disinherit a child but not a spouse.

NY Spousal Right of Election Law
There are countless different scenarios where one may want to remain married to an individual but not leave them assets as an inheritance. This can be a strategic choice and not necessarily motivated by animus. An estate planning attorney can explain if a strategy that does not leave assets to a spouse makes sense.

However, it is important to understand that there is a NY law that allows a spouse who is disinherited to voluntarily choose to collect various assets--even if they were designated for others. Specifically, the spouse can choose to take either ⅓ of the deceased "net estate" or, alternatively, $50,000. Under the law, the net estate may include many different assets. Beyond those indicated in a will, it can include joint accounts, living trust assets, and some assets where a beneficiary is designated. In addition, that net estate may also include certain gifts given within the last year. In other words, giving away asset to others as a means to deplete an estate is not a viable alternative.

This spousal right of election does not happen automatically. The disinherited spouse has to affirmatively exercise their right to take advantage of the provisions. There are various time limits to doing so. In addition, the right may be curtailed in some instances based on a pre- or postnuptial agreement.

For help creating a tailored elder law estate plan to fit your needs, please contact our NY attorneys today .

Understanding Estate Sales - What Can You Sell?

March 14, 2014,

Most legal matters have built-in complexities. Anyone who has purchased a home, for example, can appreciate the mountain of paperwork will dense legalese that must be filled out . Things are only made more challenging where there are significant emotions tied up in the dealings--like when the home was owned by a loved one who just passed away.

One common example of a process that many New York residents face with a mix of intense emotions and legal complexities is an estate sale.

No two families are the same. Some wish to go through with a sale as soon as possible to settle the matter and move on. Others take more time to process the situation before handling matters like an estate sale. In all cases, however, it is critical to proceed with an understanding of the legal requirements.

The Basics
Most importantly, one must understand what can be sold, when, and by whom. It is not as simple as adult children automatically being able to do whatever they want with their parents possessions. Answers to these questions will hinge on what estate planning was done beforehand. Use of tools like a living trust, for example, would likely streamline the process. On the other hand, those without any planning at all will have to wait for court resolution before anything can be done.

In general, all property can be labeled either as a probate asset or non-probate asset. Probate assets are those that must be collected and distributed through the court. When a will is used to pass on assets, then virtually all property in the decedent's name (individual who passed away) will be required to go through probate. Alternatively, non-probate assets pass to another automatically, or at least outside of the court's purview. This may include property held jointly with a right of survivorship, certain insurance benefits, or assets held in trust.

Those assets that do not need to pass through probate can be dealt with almost immediately. There will be a new owner or trustee who can do whatever they wish with the items, including sell them in an estate sale. Alternatively, probate assets cannot be immediately handled. Instead, the family must go to court and either present the will or have the court deal with the resolution per state intestacy laws. The court will appoint a "fiduciary" whose job it is to collect the assets and distribute them as necessary. This may include arranging a sale of a home. In more complex cases, like when the home is part of a cooperative, the same formal requirements must be met, including approval by a Cooperative Board.

Estate planning attorneys appreciate that on top of all of these legal details are very real emotional pressures. When it comes to an estate sale it is common for disputes to arise between grieving family members regarding what to sell and when. The stress and confusion is far more likely the less preparation and professional support is available. Feel free to contact our NY estate planning professionals for guidance on streamlining this process for your family.

Rock N' Roll Estate Fight - Decades After Death

December 16, 2013,

One of the biggest misconceptions about settling an estate is that all of the loose ends will be handled within weeks or months of the passing. In reality, it often takes years or more before all of the details are finalized. In cases of sizeable wealth, unique assets, or complex administration arrangements, the estate details may linger for decades.

Consider a story in last week's New York Post regarding the estate of former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. Thunders was only thirty eight years old when he died in 1991. Yet, even though the death occurred more than 23 years ago, there is a legal estate planning battle brewing over control of his assets.

Thunders Estate Fight
Thunders had little to his name when he died--with an estate valued only at $4,000. Not having a Will, the singer's assets were set to go to his estranged wife, their two children, and a third child from a second mother from Sweden. The singer's sister was named Executor of the estate and she worked on its administration.

Over the years, the sister was quite savvy with the estate management, taking advantage of some re-birth in popularity of New York Dolls songs to generate significant income for the estate. As part of her role as administrator of the estate, the sister made twice yearly payments to the singer's children and wife. These payments lasted for decades until the sister's death in 2009.

It was at that point that another estate battle was put into motion. Originally, the singer's Swedish daughter from outside of his marriage was set to take control of the estate. Yet, the daughter, now 26 years old, could not afford the sizeable bond payment needed to oversee the fund. These bond payments are often required by the court to ensure that the administrator does not abuse their discretion and control of the funds.

Yet, even though the daughter could not afford the bond, no one else was named administrator. The estate funds--around $160,000--have set unused without payment to any of the children. All of this means that no one is around to take advantage of the continued interest in the New York Dolls legacy to capitalize on royalty and licensing funds.

To make matters worse, Thunder's other two children with his wife recently filed a suit seeking to bar their half-sister from ever taking control of the estate. Both sides are set for a court date in January but are hoping to reach a settlement beforehand.

Later-Life Marriages and Prenuptial Agreements

December 8, 2013,

The "Golden Years" - that peaceful time of life after retirement; a time to watch the grandchildren grow up, to take that long-awaited vacation and to....get married? Statistics indicate that both men and women are getting married later in life, and although the rate of marriage and remarriage significantly declines with age, an estimated 500,000 Americans 65 and older get married (or remarried) every year.

While marriage at any age raises a number of legal and financial concerns, individuals 65 and older who marry later in life tend to bring significantly more assets to a marriage than individuals who marry earlier in life. In addition, those entering into in these later-life marriages are more likely to have adult children, and even grandchildren. For these reasons, it is critical that those who rediscover love during their "Golden Years" be mindful that the failure of these types of marriages can create complex estate planning legal issues.

A unique problem for later-life marriages involves potential disputes between a surviving spouse and the adult children from a previous marriage. Most states require that a portion of the deceased spouse's estate pass to the surviving spouse. This portion is known as the elective share. In New York, that share is equal to 1/3 of the deceased spouse's estate. New York, like most states, does not allow the disinheriting of a spouse to his elective share unless the spouse to be disinherited legally consents. Consequently, spouses who want to determine the terms of possession of their assets upon their death should consider creating a prenuptial agreement, one made by the spouses prior to marriage that concerns the ownership of their respective assets in the event of divorce. Without a prenuptial agreement, a "Golden Years" divorce has the potential to lead to a disastrous, and often disheartening, outcome.

Take the hypothetical later-life marriage of John and Nancy. John took the steps to create a new will once he married Nancy, generously leaving her $75,000 and the rest of his million dollar estate in equal shares to his three daughters from his previous marriage. John and Nancy did not, however, create a prenuptial agreement. Upon John's death, Nancy could, under New York law, claim her elective share of John's estate if she so desired, leaving her with far more than the $75,000 designated by the will...and leaving his three daughters with far less. One can only imagine the nightmare this could create where the relationship between Nancy and John's three daughters was already contentious. A well-drafted prenuptial agreement between John and Nancy would have allowed each of them to structure his estate as he desired, thereby avoiding a distribution that may have John rolling in his grave.

Indeed, marriage at any age can be exciting and fulfilling, yet newlyweds in their "Golden Years" must be sure not to let their love blind them to the critical role a prenuptial agreement can play in later-life marriages where one or both spouses has children and grandchildren and/or substantial assets that were acquired before the marriage.


The Huguette Clark Drama Continues--Possible Settlement?

September 27, 2013,

The New York estate feud that dominated headlines for months may finally be nearing an end. Mysterious New York heiress Huguette Clark died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 104. For several decades before her death, Clark lived inside a hospital room--even though she was healthy enough to live elsewhere. Her several mansions remained empty for years. In fact, a documentary film based on Clark's life and death is currently in creation--several books have already been published.

Because of her unique lifestyle and secretive existence, many were intensely interested in her estate plan--curious as to how her $300 million fortune would be passed on. So began a complex back-and-forth between dozens of different parties who apparently had a stake in the estate--including Clark's doctor, lawyer, nurse, the hospital where she stayed, her distant relative, named charities, and more.

Clark's estate planning was relatively bare considering the size of the assets. Essentially two wills were produced. The two wills were both created in 2005. The terms of those two wills could not be more different. The first will gave most of her assets to her distant relatives. The second will cut the family out entirely and instead sprinkled money to her doctor, nurse, lawyer, accountant, and arts-related charities.

It was not long before the different parties at stake were locked in a legal battles. As a substantive matter, the main issues was which of the two wills should be followed. Last week, we explained how negotiations had broken down and the matter was set for trial.

Apparent Settlement
But on the eve of jury selection in the case, the New York Post is reporting that a settlement may have been reached. Per the terms of the possible agreement, a group of 20 relatives will split $34.5 million from that estate. Another major beneficiary would be the new foundation created and set up at Clark's California estate. The Corcoran Gallery will receive $10 million, the hospital where she lived would get $1 million, and a loyal doctor-friend would receive $100,000.

Interestingly, not everyone involved with walk away with some piece of the estate. For example, her attorney and accountant will not receive anything. In addition, Clark's nurse will not receive the nearly $7 million she would have per the terms of the second will.

The next step is for the settlement to be put before the judge. So long as he approves it, the matter may finally be settled.

IRS Valuation & Taxes - The Michael Jackson Examples

August 23, 2013,

Death and taxes; the two constants in life. There has been significant discussion in the past few years over the one tax that is itself most closely tied to death: the estate tax. At the federal level, the President and Congress have debated the exact rate of the the tax and at one point it should kick in.

But once those details are set, it is still not entirely easy to determine what one's total estate tax bill is. That is because most individuals have assets whose value is hard to gauge. It would be straightforward if all of one's wealth was in a bank account with a set balance or stocks with a clear value.

That's not how it works in the real world, however. Instead, many have assets that must be "valued" before added to a tax bill. Who does the valuing and what decisions they reach may ultimately have significant effects on how much of an estate goes to Uncle Sam. As you might imagine there is frequently considerable disagreement regarding this matters.

The MJ Example
For example, Bloomberg News is reporting that Michael Jackson's estate is challenging the estate tax bill which the IRS calculated. The estate claims that some assets were overvalued, leading to a requested payment in excess of what should have been owed.

The process has included some back-and-forth. First, the estate hired its own appraisers to value everything in the estate. Then, based on those appraisals, the estate paid the estate taxes that were due. Later, the IRS issued a "notice of deficiency." This is the government's way of claiming that the estate didn't pay enough and owes more. In response, attorneys for the estate have fired back, filing their own suit challenging the notice of deficiency.

The court filing lists many different assets that the estate claims were overvalued by the IRS. This includes real estate, automobiles, Jackson's share of a business, items in two trusts, and smaller personal property. In addition, there are disagreements about how much the singer's "image and likeness" are worth as well as the value in a "contingency non-appearance and cancellation" policy which was part of a scheduled concert series.

In short, there is a lot of room for conflict here, and with so much money ultimately at stake, this estate tax dispute will likely rage on for some time. It is yet another reminder of the critical need for experienced estate planning help both before and, sometimes, after a passing.

Michael Jackson Estate Saga Continues -- $500 Million in Debt Paid Off

July 2, 2013,

When someone passes away, the basic principles of settling the estate seem straightforward: collect assets, pay off debts, and distribute what is remaining per the deceased's wishes. While that cursory sketch appears easy enough, in practice, dealing with these matters can take years, have a significant cost, and result in prolonged disagreement, destroyed relationships, and even legal battles.

As always, a high-profile celebrity example offers a helpful look at how it plays out in the real world.

The Las Vegas Sun recently reported on the latest in the prolonged battle related to famed pop star Michael Jackson's estate. The singer died over four year ago, but from most reports the matter is nowhere near being resolved. For one there, there is still pending litigation related to the billion-dollar tour production Jackson was set to complete just before his passing.

One positive sign is that it appears all of Jackson's sizeable debts, nearly half a billion dollars at the time of his death, have now been paid. This marks an important step, and will hopefully signal a turning point leading to final resolution of all loose ends.

Prudent Estate Administration
Interestingly, many are pointing to the competent management of the estate as an example of the immense value one receives from professional support with these issues. The Sun articles notes that in the four years since his passing Jackson's estate has made a staggering $1.1 billion as a result of savvy financial moves and business decisions related to using his high profile image and continued celebrity.

According to one report, Jackson's estate made more money in the four years since his death than the entire time time that he was alive. He sold 50 million albums in that time and Michael Jackson shows have been licensed by many different groups.

While no else has a life or legacy like Michael Jackson, the principle of immense value from professional aid with settling an estate should be noted by all. When a loved one passes away there will not be a tidy list of debts, contact numbers to cancel accounts, instructions on filing taxes, or any other easy-to-follow guides to handling all of the administrative odds and ends. Instead, months of confusion, frustration, paperwork headaches and more can await a family trying to handle these affairs in the midst of grief.

Local residents are well advised to visit with estate planning lawyers ahead of time so that steps are already in place to handle these matters efficiently no matter what the future holds.

Estate Planning Becoming Reality Show?

June 5, 2013,

Epic estate planning battles--particularly involving the wealthy and famous--have long been fodder for newspapers. There have even been a few high-profile movies touching on the topic, like the recent George Clooney film, "The Descendants." But now it appears that the sagas may make their way into yet another medium: television.

Reality TV continues to captivate audiences, and now some are looking to cast a new television show based on unique, intense, and interesting inheritance fights. The Trust Advisor recently shared information on the project which, if it becomes popular, is sure to raise awareness of common estate planning issues even more.

The show is still in the early stages of development, but it is clear that a large TV production team is looking for families to be filmed as their inheritance issues and planning details are sorted out. These early reports suggest that the show will center on inheritance and trust disputes among wealthy families. The purpose, one presumes, is to find families with the most unique issues, including family businesses, generations-long dynasties, and large personalities. The filming (and packaging as a television show) will likely highlight both the characters themselves as well as the unique processes involved in settling estate fights. While it may seem common knowledge to those of us working on these affairs, it is easy to forget that for most community matters, estate planning issues are foreign.

The article notes that "the goal is to get everyone to work out their grudges and actually resolve their issues without getting the litigators involved." Considering that this is the same goal shared by many who are beginning the estate planning process when not being filmed, it will be interesting to see if the show mirrors how the process actually works.

The producers explain that while the goal is to find situations where families can work out their disagreement, examples of "clients gone bad" may also be involved. This refers to situations where clear planning advice is ignored or obvious mistakes (perhaps intentional) were made which lead to hurt feeling, arguments, and broken relationships.

Of course, estate planning attorneys, financial advisors, and others working in these area will undoubtedly be a natural audience for this show. But perhaps beyond mere entertainment something like this will spawn into an important, educational tool for all community members. There remains a need for more families to seriously consider their legacies, and watching examples of feuding unfold on their television may be just the spur some need to stop delaying and make a call.

Trying to "Woo" Inclusion Into The Will of Heiress Huguette Clark

June 3, 2013,

The New York Times shared a story late last week on developments in the settling of the estate of copper heiress Huguette Clark. It is a reminder of the sensitive nature of estate planning, particularly for those with wealth, and the lengths that all involved parties may go to influence one's decisions regarding inheritance.

As many know, Ms. Clark was very reclusive, living the final two decades of her life at the Beth Israel Medical Center, even though for most of that time she did not actually need hospital care. According to new reports (and allegations from family members), almost as soon as she arrived the hospital engaged in a complex campaign to receive donations from the heiress. Apparently the facility had administrative officials sent to her frequently to build trust. After some time the officials, including the hospital's CEO allegedly, began talking with her about creating a will. All of this was after officials researched the family history in the hopes of making a more personalized connection with Ms. Clark. It goes without saying that this sort of treatment is not provided to all patients at the facility.

All of this is only recently being made public as part of a high-profile legal challenge filed by some of Clark's relatives angling for a larger share of her $300 million estate. The legal challenges began almost immediately after her death in 2011, and they are still raging. A trial in the matter is scheduled for September.

The crux of the legal case are claims of undue influence. Beyond trying to get into her will, the family claims that the facility used its position to convince Clark to stay in the hospital for decades (and pay millions to do so), even though she didn't need medical care. In addition to medical fees, Clark gave the non-profit hospital $4 million in donations, left them $1 million in her will, and donated a painting that sold at auction for $3.5 million.

Criticism of the facility is not limited to relatives. A Manhattan public administrator previously issued critiques of the handling of the estate by many, including the hospital as well as those closest to Clark in the last years of her life.

Two will were drafted in 2005, and the second will is hotly disputed. The first will includes relatives while the second mostly cuts them out. The family argues that a doctor involved in Clark's care influenced her to made the changes in the second will. Claims about this sort of conduct, particularly with will changes so close together, are not uncommon.

Siblings Inheritance Feud Turns Criminal

May 14, 2013,

Estate planning attorneys frequently urge residents to be careful about creating long-term plans to avoid family feuding. Careful consideration of inheritances, open communication between families, and prudent use of tools like trusts are usually the best way to ensure that families are not torn apart after a passing.

Some seniors appreciate certain inherent conflicts within the family and work to counter those risks. However, many others assume that such feuding only affects "others" and their family members would never fall into arguments and ruin relationships over property or other end-of-life matters. The reality is that no one knows for sure how things might play out. Reactions to the loss of a relative often spur deep psychological impulses with emotions askew. That can spur problems for even the most stable families.

Estate Planning Murder Plot
The extreme lengths that some go in the heat of an inheritance feud were demonstrated in a sad case reported this week in The Chronicle. The bizarre case involved the Wolf family of two sisters and brother fighting over an inheritance. The feud began in 2006 following the death of the adult-children's parents. An estate valued at about $3 million was at stake.

Reports indicate that fighting broke out immediately as the children sought to maximize their inheritance. The brother, in particular, seemed willing to do anything to increase his share of the family fortune. All told, more than six different criminal charges were filed, several civil lawsuits were pursued, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees were racked up.

All of that peaked in 2010, when one of the sisters was seriously injured when out of nowhere a box of candy blew up in her face as she opened it. The box was filled with pieces of pipe,glass, tacks, and other explosives. The second sister was also targeted for murder. It was only later that the brother was connected to the plot. He apparently tried to hire a ex-convict to kill his sisters to secure as much of the inheritance as possible.

This week he was officially sentenced to life in prison for his actions.

In summarizing the case, an observer noted, "Just a tragic situation coming out of probate. People get so wrapped up in those things, they lose sight of what's important."

Few cases of probate feuding will end with an attempted murder conviction. However, far too many families will find relationships destroyed following disagreement spurred by the process. That is why it is critical for families to use trusts and other planning measure to avoid probate and pass on assets in a seamless process void of opportunity to spur fighting.

Washington Post Article on Family Struggles in Dividing Up Assets

April 5, 2013,

A recent Washington Post article discussed the lethal combination of family and finances. The author recounts how even the most close-knit families can be torn apart by disagreements about money matters. The article included one reader to wrote a letter offering an example of how his parent's will is causing tension and turmoil.

The letter was written by an adult son who was asked by his parents to assist with their estate planning. He was named executor and helped with locating financial documents. The son saw a copy of the will after it was completed, noting that it left assets to a few charities and then split the remaining estate between himself and his one sibling--a sister. This represents a pretty common situation, with families assuming that such a simple estate plan and division will not come with any disagreement.

But then a few years later the parents updated their will. Instead of splitting the assets between their two children, they decided to split it in thirds. Their two teenage grandchildren (from their daughter) will receive a third, and the two adult children will each receive a third. The son noted with shock that his share suddenly went from one half to one third.

The son noted that he is confused and frustrated by the development. As a gay man with a long-term partner, he does not intend to have children. He noted that he was financially secure, and so the frustration is not bore by a need for the inheritance. However, he can't help but feel penalized for his situation for no reason.

These sorts of tensions occur all the time. At times, the frustrated parties may not speak up when first learning about the situation, because they may not want to seem greedy or motivated by a desire to get a larger share. But the frustration can boil over after a passing, leading to will contests and permanent family drama.

There is no right or wrong answer to the decisions made in situations like the one described here. However, there are prudent steps that can be taken--no matter what the terms of the will--to lessen the chance of ruined relationships. For one thing, it may be worthwhile to bring in a neutral third party to manage the estate. Having a son act as executor in a situation where he feels resentful about the will is a recipe for disaster. Inviting a professional, perhaps an estate planning attorney, to handle the situation will ensure that even accusations of impropriety are nipped early on.

Dying Intestate--The Documents that Later Emerge

February 15, 2013,

If you pass away without a will designating how you'd like your affairs to be handled, you are deemed to have died "intestate." Some of the most significant legal battles and family feuding occurs in those situation because it is essentially a free-for-all. Generic legal rules apply, but without any indication of how to handle property distribution and other matters, all interested parties may decide to pursue different legal avenues to maximize their own interests. Legal fights can still occur when a will exists (often referred to a "will contests"), but the possibility of one's wishes being completely upended are far lower when at least some documentation exists.

Interestingly, it is not uncommon for various documents purporting to explain one's wishes to pop up later on--in the midst of a legal dispute. For obvious reasons, these documents should be examined with much scrutiny, but they still may influence a legal case.

New Document in Lottery Winner's Estate Feud
For example, ABC News recently reported on a new document that was shared with the court in the well-known case involving a poisoned lottery winner. The estate battle gained national attention last year when a lottery winner died suddenly after being given cyanide. Authorities have yet to make any arrests, but various parties (including the man's wife and father-in-law) have been under suspicion for involvement in the matter.

The lottery winner (who also owned a small business) died intestate. Since his passing, various family members have been fighting over the remains of his estate. Most prominently the man's widow and his siblings have spent significant time in court in an attempt to argue why they should receive the bulk of his wealth.

Recently, the widow came forward claiming that she found a new document signed by her husband which purports to leave all of his assets to his wife. Mysteriously, the letter was signed only two months before his untimely death. The document was allegedly an "operating agreement" that was drafted with his business partner. The agreement was submitted to the probate court last week. The man's brother questioned the timing of the find and argued that it was illogical for the agreement to be signed only two months before his death, as if he had any idea that he would ultimately be murdered.

Adding to the complexity are the possible inheritance rights of the man's child from a previous marriage and allegations that the man did not legally marry the widow. Considering all of the complications, this situation is the prototypical example of lack of estate planning gone awry. Accusations of murder, blended families, feuding in-laws, newly discovered documents, and lottery winnings all combined without use of trusts or a will.