One common misconception regarding estate planning is that simply getting wishes down on paper automatically means that those wishes will be carried out. Some New Yorkers, for example, may be under the too-optimistic assumption that drafting a quick will designating inheritances is enough to ensure that assets will go where intended.
It may be that simple in theory, but the reality is far murkier.
That is because challenges to wills and trusts are incredibly common. Disputes frequently result in compromises that are far different than what was originally intended. That is sometimes true even in cases where extensive planning was done ahead of time.
James Brown Estate
Take, for example, the prolonged battle over the estate of James Brown. The legendary singer died several years ago, leaving behind an estate worth tens of millions of dollars. Brown was prudent in his planning, and so he had a will and trust in place. Those arrangements provided that the vast majority of his assets be transferred into a new charitable trust. In short, Brown wished to give most of his money away, instead of leaving it to his purported spouse, several children, and other relatives.
However, shortly after the death, all of the involved challenged the will. The family members asked that the state’s intestate succession rules be applied, which would have divided all of the assets between the spouse and children. Eventually, the state attorney general intervened, brokering an agreement that sent half of the estate to charity and that split the other half between the family.
The matter did not end there. That is because the court-appointed representative of the estate challenged the apparent settlement. In their eyes, Brown very clearly wanted his estate to go nearly entirely to the charitable trust, and there were no grounds for those wishes to be overturned.
Recently, in a new decision the state’s Supreme Court (read the opinion here) agreed with the representatives and threw out the settlement. Specifically, the high court did not find the compromise plan to be reasonable. The opinion states that “The result [of the settlement] is to take a large portion of Brown’s estate that Brown had designated for charity and to turn over these amounts to the family members and purported family members who were, under the plain terms of Brown’s will, given either limited devises or excluded.”
Fortunately, in this case, it seems the Brown’s wishes will be preserved. However, many other cases end up with a different result. And, in any event, the ultimate goal is not to have a bitter, drawn out dispute in the first place.
That is where experienced professionals come in. Beyond ensuring that the procedural rules are followed and the technical work is completed with regard to wills and trusts, experienced estate planning attorneys are also valuable because they provide practical insight to account for unforeseen variables. The best way to prevent an estate plan from being challenged is by being aware of the potential dispute ahead of time.