The DuPont Case, Mental Illness, and Wills

Residents are often warned to complete their estate planning–wills and trusts–before it is “too late.” Most assume that the planning is only “too late” if they die before getting it done. But that is a mistake. In many cases “too late” actually refers to losing the competency to create the legal documents. As a practical matter, it may even mean before one even has the appearance of mental health issues, because even a hint of problems may open the door to legal challenge from others.

Estate planning is about ensuring one’s wishes are carried out and maximizing the preservation of assets without controversy. Limiting that controversy includes completing the planning early and efficiently, minimizing the risk of problems down the road. Thought of in that way, “too late” is far earlier than simply “before you die.”

John duPont Estate
Legal issues related to the inheritance planning and mental stability recently made headlines with the passing of multi-millionaire (and convicted murderer) John duPont.

An accomplished natural scientists, duPont was known as a renaissance man of sorts, with a wide range of interests and quirks. He collected a shells and birds that now don the halls of natural history museums. He even authored and illustrated several books on birds that are highly regarded in the field. DuPont maintained an extensive stamp collection, at one point paying nearly $1 million for a single stamp from Britain. He also was an athlete, became a coach, and was a financial backer for various U.S. Olympic teams.

However, all of these interests were apparently tempered by mental instability. Eventually, in 1997, he was convicted of murdering a man in his home–a wrestler that he coached. At trial he was deemed mentally unstable, and many have assumed him to be a paranoid schizophrenic. The official adjudication was “guilty but mentally ill.”

DuPont died in prison two years ago. At the time, his estate was valued at over $500 million. In the subsequent two years, much of the state was liquidated, and many of his famous collections and property continue to reach auction.

Since his passing his family and other interested parties have engaged in endless fighting over the future of the fortune. DuPont had several wills, but the most recent was signed only three months before his death. That document left most of the estate to a Bulgarian wrestler as well as some to his attorney. However, the duPont family is challenging the will, claiming that his previous adjudication as mentally unstable invalidated the most recent will. If a court agrees, they may go back to a previous will signed at a time he was stable or come up with alternative modes of dividing the assets.

Reports suggest that even though the feuding has been ongoing for years, it is far from complete. It now stands as another tragic example of the complexities of estate planning–a reminder of the need to act early and comprehensively to avoid infighting and settle matters outside the purview of the courts.

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