It is impossible to predict exactly how every family member will respond in the aftermath of a passing. However, as experienced will and trust lawyers know all too well, there are many situations that dramatically increase the likelihood of controversy that leads to a contested estate. Mixed families, a large age-gap between spouses, and secrecy are often signs of family tension that may erupt after a death.
A high-profile New York estate feud offers an example of that very situation.
NY Photographer Bern Stern's Estate Fight
Celebrity photographer Bruce Stern is well-known for his legendary photos of Marilyn Monroe--many taken just before her death. Stern died last year at the age of 83, leaving a roughly $10 million estate behind. As discussed in a recent Post story, family members are in bitter disagreement over how the estate should be divided.
Stern had three children, all from his first marriage that ended in 1975. As far as the children knew, their father's assets were to be distributed per the terms of a 2007 will that split half the estate between the children while giving the other half to his own photography foundation.
However, just before his passing, Shannah Laumeister came forward claiming that she and Stern were married in secret in 2009. She directed a documentary about Stern in 2010 and is nearly 40 years his junior. The adult children had no idea of the union.
Laumeister produced a second will from 2010 that created a private trust with all of the assets and gave control of the trust to Laumeister. According to Surrogate Court filings, Laumeister claims that the adult children would still receive cash bequests as part of the new will, but the details of those bequests are unclear.
Psychiatry Records & Questions About Mental State
Expectedly, the adult children challenged the 2010 will. The feud is making its way through the court system. Most recently, reports suggest that the Laumeister is fighting to block sharing of information about Stern's meetings with a psychiatrist.
For their part, the children argue that information about Stern's mental and medical state when the contested will was created is of obvious relevance. Alternatively, the younger wife argues that release of the information would permanently damage Stern's reputation. The value of his estate is closely tied with his artistic works and reputation-damage would significantly harm the estate, she claims.
An obvious take-away lesson from this story is a reminder that an experienced estate planning attorney can point out the many red flags that suggests a feud may be likely. A legal professional can offer counsel on steps to take that may eliminate secrecy or otherwise increase the chance of a smooth, conflict-free process that is resolved fairly and efficiently.