Legal Battle over Robin Williams’ Estate

In August of 2014, Robin Williams passed away in his northern California home at the age of 63.  Williams is survived by his spouse, Susan Schneider Williams and his three adult children from prior marriages, Zak Williams, Zelda Williams and Cody Williams.  Robin executed a Will and Trust prior to his death that describe in detail how he intended to divide his estate, which total approximately $45 million.

However, Susan Williams has filed suit against the children seeking a Order from the Court removing the couples’ $7 million dollar home from the items described in the Will and Trust. Robin’s Estate Planning documents contain provisions that leave the majority of the Estate’s “jewelry, memorabilia and personal property items” to Robin’s children.  Susan Williams seeks to retain jewelry, memorabilia and other personal property contained in their home as community property.  Susan Williams argues that the “memorabilia and jewelry” described in the Will are items only located in Robin’s Napa Valley home, not the home that he shared with Susan Williams.  While Susan Williams’ attorney believes that this will not be a contentious dispute, Robin’s children feel that Susan is attempting to re-draft Robin’s Will to better suit her desires.

The legal battle over the Estate of Robin Williams serves as a warning that even when clear planning is in place, a blended family can easily find themselves in Court contesting the Estate of a loved one.  If you or someone you know requires assistance with an Estate Litigation matter or simply wants to plan around potential Estate Litigation, contact the experienced attorneys at Ford + Bergner LLP today.

Heiress’ Estate Litigation Has Lessons For Texas Readers

Huguette Clark was an interesting figure, to put it mildly.

Clark, who died in 2011 at the age of 104, was the lone heiress to a $300 million fortune her father made mining copper. In the last stages of her life, she became a recluse. She lived (by choice) in a Manhattan hospital for the last two decades of her life with her large collection of dolls; the only people with whom she had regular contact were her nurse and attorney.

Clark died testate, having had a will made in April 2005. The will left most her money to her nurse and to charitable causes. It was quickly challenged by some of Clark’s distant, living relatives.

Clark’s relatives have alleged two things, and we thought their accusations presented a good chance to illustrate two concepts for our Texas audience:

  • Mental Incapacity: Clark’s relatives have alleged that she was not mentally fit to make a will. This claim has largely been exhausted. The standard for mental capacity is quite low. As long as a person understands, in a general way A.) The nature and extent of his or her property. B.) The natural objects of his or her bounty C.) The disposition that he or she is making of that property and D.) Is capable of relating those elements to one another and forming an orderly desire regarding the disposition of the property, then he or she likely has capacity. Although Clark was eccentric and some of her choices were strange, that is not enough to indicate that she lacked capacity.
  • Duress: A will that is created under duress, meaning under overt coercion, it has no effect. Courts have a very high bar for what amounts to “coercion,” though. Essentially, if there is any question was to whether something amounts to duress, that means it probably is not.

The estate litigation that began almost immediately after Clark’s death seems to be winding down now, so it will be interesting to see the final outcome of this case.

If you have further questions related to estate planning concepts like estate, trusts, guardianships and conservatorships, you could contact us.

Undue Influence on Wills

Following the death of a testator, wills may be contested for many reasons.  There may be a lack of clarity in the will, with some of the provisions vaguely defined.  The will may not cover all possible scenarios, such as the death of certain beneficiaries.  Furthermore, family members may feel that they’ve been treated unfairly, and in some cases they may suspect undue influence.

Undue influence is a serious matter, though it isn’t easy to prove.  In circumstances of undue influence, the testator is thought to have been excessively pressured, manipulated, or coerced in writing the will.  Typically, the will becomes skewed in favor of a certain person or people, at the expense of other beneficiaries.

What are some potential signs of undue influence?

Unusual behavior from the testator.  A recent example from the news is an heiress who, according to her relatives, abruptly cut off ties with various family members towards the end of her life, and strangely left two wills, written several weeks apart: one leaving her fortune mostly to family members, and the other cutting them out entirely and leaving a large portion of the money to an attorney, an accountant, and a charitable foundation run by both.  Relatives see this odd behavior as a sign of undue influence.

Vulnerability.  In a number of cases, the testator may rely on certain individuals for care; these individuals may use their power over the testator and their heavy involvement in the testator’s day-to-day life to exert undue influence on how the will is written.  The testator may be afraid of them in some way or unusually reluctant to refuse their wishes.  They may also isolate the testator from other people in various ways.

Issues of mental capacity.  Even if the testator isn’t officially mentally incapacitated, they may still be prone to forgetfulness or confusion, particularly if they’re more advanced in years.  These states of mind may be used to the advantage of certain individuals.

Motive.  The individuals thought to exert undue influence usually have some obvious motive and would benefit from changes to the will.

Sometimes cases of undue influence may seem obvious, but in fact it’s difficult to definitively prove in court.  There are many instances when testators choose of their own volition to leave most of their estate to a certain individual; other people, especially family members, may be upset as a result, and latch onto the idea that the testator couldn’t possibly have been acting of his or her free will.  To sort through a case that seems to involve undue influence, you would need the assistance of expert estate lawyers.

If you’re currently embroiled in a dispute involving suspicions of undue influence, contact us to discuss the case.  One piece of advice that we’ll leave you with now is to not wait until after the death of a testator.  If you feel as if a loved one may be facing pressure from someone in regards to the writing of a will, address the matter when they’re still alive.

Mediation in Estate Disuputes

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article discussing the use of mediation as a method to resolve estate and trust disputes.  The Journal asked a series of questions to William Zabel, a Estate and Trust Attorney from New York.

According to Mr. Zabel, a driving force of estate disputes center around the lack of clarity in the Will regarding who receives the Decedent’s tangible personal property.  This can include anything from clothes, furniture and antiques to jewelry and automobiles.  As one can imagine, if the Will says “everyone receives an equal share of the personal property”, determining who inherits the jewelry collection or the crystal glasses can become difficult.

Additionally, Mr. Zabel warns that sibling rivalry, including influence from in-laws, and over-aggressive attorneys are at the root of why most mediation proceedings break down.  However, the reduced cost of the mediation process versus the expense of litigation is sometimes the best way to entice all parties to at least attempt mediation, which Mr. Zabel recommends.  Additionally, Mr. Zabel says, “But in general, the lasting anger and bitterness of litigation doesn’t seem to occur when matters are settled by mediation.”

Mediation is one of several tools implemented by the attorneys at Ford + Bergner LLP.  Managing Partner Don D. Ford III completed the required course work to become certified as a mediator at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University’s School of Law in Malibu, California.

If you have questions regarding settling an estate and trust matter, contact our office today.

TV’s “The Jeffersons” actor Sherman Hemsley Estate Dispute Settled

The Probate Judge of El Paso County, Texas has ordered a DNA test in the Estate of actor Sherman Hemsley after a before unknown relative stepped forward .  You may remember Mr. Hemsley from his role as George Jefferson in the TV shows “The Jeffersons”.

Hemsley’s Will named his manager Flora Enchinton Bernal as his sole beneficiary and Executor of the estate.  However, a dispute arose when a Philadelphia man, claiming to be Hemsley’s half-brother, filed in the Probate Court claiming to be the brother of the deceased actor.  Due to the dispute, Judge Patricia Chew ordered DNA testing to confirm the allegations.  The Order delayed the trial in the estate and Hemsley’s body had to kept frozen in an El Paso funeral home.  Because of this, the funeral was delayed for four months.  The issue has now been settled, as Chew ruled the original Will to be valid.  Hemsley relocated to El Paso later in his life, and has resided in the State of Texas for the last 20 years.

The litigators at Ford + Mathiason LLP specialize in Estate, Trust and Guardianship litigation.  If you are considering contesting a Will or are currently engaged in estate ligation, contact Ford + Mathiason LLP for assistance.

Will Contests in Texas, Part 1

Part 1 – What are the statutory requirements for a Will in Texas.

The first place to start in a Will contest, is, not surprisingly, the Will itself. In Texas, a Will must be in writing in all but the most limited circumstances. If you knew the Decedent to have a Will, examine the one offered for probate. Is it the same document you knew to be the decedent’s Will? If not, is it consistent with what the Decedent relayed to you concerning the disposition of his Estate? Also, determine if the Will is from a familiar source. Most probate attorneys have some form of identification on their Wills. If you find it, ensure that it is a lawyer you knew the Decedent had used in the past or was at least familiar with. Feel free to give the attorney a call and inquire as to her recollection of the execution.

Second, the Will must be signed by the Decedent. If you were familiar with the signature of the Decedent, examine the Will and ensure that the signature matches what you knew to be the Decedent’s signature. However, it is important to note that almost any marking will suffice as a signature, just so long as it was the Decedent’s mark or a mark made by someone, for him, at his direction, and in his presence. If you feel the signature does not match up, consult a handwriting expert and obtain a professional opinion.

Third, the Will must be signed by the maker with the intent to express his wishes for a testamentary disposition of his property. In other words, the intention to make the document a Will. This is called “Testamentary Intent.” A letter may suffice as a Will, but it must clearly express the person’s desire to pass on property after his death. Anything short of that and the document will not be held to have been drafted with the requisite “intent.”

Finally, the drafter must have known and understood the contents of the document he was signing. While this element bleeds over slightly into testamentary capacity issues, the main thing to focus on here is did the drafter know what was in the Will, and did he understand what the document stated. If this was just some document that was drafted elsewhere and then shoved into the person’s face by a manipulative beneficiary, and the Decedent never knew or understood the contents, then it will not qualify as a valid Will.

These are the first questions to be asking yourself when you are concerned with the validity of a Will and contemplating a Will Contest in Texas. Tomorrow we will delve deeper into the requirements for a valid execution of a Texas Will.

Will Contests in Texas – A Four-Part Series

Next week I am starting a new four-part series regarding Will Contests in Texas. I get numerous calls every week from potential clients who, after explaining their situation to me, ask if they have any grounds to contest a Will. When it quickly became apparent that the same questions were arising regularly, I decided this subject would make a good blog topic.

My goal is to explain exactly what a Texas Will contest entails, what grounds are available for such a contest, and what issues regularly arise in such proceedings. In the following days, I will lay out what actual grounds are available for a such contests, and hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions out there about what can and cannot be contested when dealing with Texas Wills.

As a primer, there are basically two base groupings that all contests fall into. The first deals with the person writing the Will, and the second deals with the document itself. Therefore, starting Monday, we will look at the following issues surrounding Will Contests:

1. What are the statutory requirements for a valid Will in Texas?

2. What are the statutory requirements for a valid Will execution in Texas?

3. What does “testamentary capacity” mean?

4. What is an “insane delusion” and what constitutes “undue influence” in the drafting of a Will?

So tune in tomorrow as we delve into the statutory requirements for a properly drafted Texas Will.