Clarity in Estate Planning – Who Owns Fawcett’s Warhol Painting?

Unintended consequences are rampant in do-it-yourself Will creation and other estate planning. Even arrangements that seem simple at first blush may prove to have hidden ambiguities or uncertainties that only come to light during probate–when it is too late to fix.

Partner vs. University
To get an idea of how ambiguity in estate planning can lead to controversy, consider the brewing legal battle between actor Ryan O’Neal and the University of Texas at Austin. The dispute centers on an Andy Warhol painting of actress Farrah Fawcett.

Though they never married, O’Neal and Fawcett were long-time romantic partners. Fawcett died rather young, in 2009. Her possessions were distributed to many different parties, but the single issue in contention here are provisions that all of her artwork be left to the University of Texas. No side disputes that the University should receive her artwork. However, they do disagree on what art was owned by Fawcett and what was owned by O’Neal.

Specifically, the well-known pop artist Andy Warhol painted two identical pictures of Fawcett and gave them to the couple in the 1980s. The University of Texas is already in possession of one of those pieces. However, they are now suing O’Neal to receive the other one. For his part, O’Neal claims that Warhol gave the couple each one of the pieces. Therefore, O’Neal claims that he himself owned one of the paintings, not Fawcett, and so it should not pass to the University.

As discussed in an AP news story, the case went to trial late last month. Expectedly, much of the testimony revolved when the couple received the paintings and what terms were implicit in the transfer of the items from Warhol to the pair. For example, O’Neal’s legal team had a former hairdresser of the star explain on the stand that Fawcett told her in 1994 that one of the paintings belonged to O’Neal.

Interestingly, the trial also included dispute about the value of the work. O’Neal claims that a 2009 appraisal had the item pegged at less than $1 million. The University of Texas has their painting insured for $600,000. Yet, at trial testimony from an expert witnesses suggested that each painting was worth upwards of $12 million.

The bottom line: always have the support of an experienced estate planning attorney when doing this work. Experienced professionals can identify possible problem areas from the outset, finding solutions that give you and your family the best chance to settle these matters efficiently and conflict-free when the time comes.

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