This weekend the New York Times reported on the sad legal battles of 94-year-old actress and Broadway star, Celeste Holm. Ms. Holm gained famed as a leading film actress in the 1940s, starring in All About Eve and winning an Oscar for her performance in Gentleman’s Agreement. Now, however, Ms. Holm is making headlines for her 5-year legal battle with her sons over her estate. The story notes the potential for drama surrounded a New York inheritance and, as the author writes, is “a cautionary tale for families trying to manage one of our age’s emblematic conflicts, between elderly parents who want to live autonomously and adult children who want to protect them.”
The trouble for the family began when Ms. Holm (then 87 years old) began dating a man who was 46 years younger. When the man moved into Ms. Holm’s large Central Park West apartment her two sons became worried that the relationship would have ramifications on their inheritance. Shortly after, Ms. Holm’s son transferred her investments and apartment into limited partnerships and then arranged for the partnerships to be held in an irrevocable trust, naming himself as the trustee. The trust was scheduled to pay Ms. Holm $300,000 a year to cover her expenses.
These living trusts are popular legal entities than help families transfer assets at death while avoiding the time and expense of probate proceedings. However, it is imperative that the decisions are made in good-faith with the consent of those involved. That is where Ms. Holm’s family situation went awry. Following a family meltdown over the relationship with the younger man, Ms. Holm sued her son to overturn the irrevocable trust. The legal battle eventually lasted five years and consumed millions of dollars–taken from the very estate that was at issue. The two parties eventually settled, but the expenses of the fight had placed Ms. Holm in a tough financial situation. Ms. Holm and her now-husband remain in debt and they are unsure if they will be forced to move out of their apartment.
Stories of prolonged legal battles, broken families, and squandered savings are tragic for all those involved. The best means of avoiding these problems is to contact a New York estate planning attorney as early as possible to ensure that these inheritance issues are decided ahead of time and understood by all.
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