TV Star Gary Coleman died unexpectedly nearly two years ago in May 2010. He was only 42 years old. Coleman had some previous estate planning measures handled, because his former manager was apparently named as executor and beneficiary of his estate as early as 2005. However, the plan does not seem to have been updated in any way in the intermediate five years, even though many changes took place in his life.
This has led to an on-going feud that continues to drag out under the public eye–a reminder of the need to update estate plans and the value of privacy that these plans provide.
In 2005, Coleman met a woman, Shannon Price, on the set of a movie. The two began dating and were married about two years later. However, the marriage was apparently a rocky one, and the two divorced less than a year after the wedding. The couple remained living together after the divorce. In fact, it was Coleman’s ex-wife who discovered that he had fallen in the home in 2010. And it was his ex-wife who made the decision to take Coleman off life support after suffering a severe head injury in the fall.
Now Ms. Price is engaged in a very public dispute with Coleman’s former manager for control over his estate. Our New York estate planning lawyers understand that situations like this–with possible ambiguities in the legal documents–often lead to prolonged estate battles. Failing to update documents to account for life events, like marriage and divorce, remain one of the most common planning mistakes. Many often assume that there will be plenty of time to handle those details later, but no one knows for sure when the documents will be necessary.
The Coleman case is also a reminder of the value of privacy that comes with estate plans that use tools like trusts to avoid probate and keep matters out of the public eye. One doesn’t have to be a celebrity to desire keeping unflattering details or disagreements about one’s life private. However, the legal proceedings related to these issues are almost always public matters.
For example, the Washington Post reported on a recent hearing in the case where details about Coleman’s rocky relationship were made public. The former manager seeking to gain sole control over his estate claims that he and his ex-wife frequently fought and that Price was physically abusive to Coleman. Allegations were also made that the ex-wife treated the TV star like a child–walking him around by his wrist. A former neighbor testified that the former couple’s home was a mess.
No matter what the truth, it is likely that Coleman–like anyone–would have preferred not to have all of these unflattering details made public even after his passing.
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