Sunday, November 16, 2014
When a loved one dies, families are consumed with grief. Unfortunately, certain legal and organizational tasks should not be ignored or put off for long. Yet you can ease the burden on your loved ones by making simple preparations in addition to a will.
Consider augmenting your will with a letter of instruction, which is an informal document that you can draft yourself. Unlike a will, the letter of instruction is not legally binding, but it can be helpful for your family in your absence, and can provide more detail than a customary will. It might be best to organize your letter into three sections: funeral arrangements, financial and personal affairs, and distribution of personal effects.
In the section covering funeral arrangements, include a list of people to notify upon your death, and include their contact information. Also specify your wishes as to organ or tissue donation, burial method, and details about your funeral service.
Make sure to list all financial accounts, including retirement accounts, stockholdings, pension and credit cards. Provide contact information for your account beneficiaries so that your executor can easily contact them.
Finally, you are able to go into greater detail in terms of allocating your possessions. Here is where you can specify who gets what. You can even write individual notes to family members in addition to the general document.
See Lindsay Gellman, When a Will Is Not Enough, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 15, 2014.
Special thanks to Brian Cohan (Attorney at Law, Law Offices of Brian J. Cohan, P.C.) for bringing this article to my attention.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
The practice of scorned testators getting in the last word in disputes through their will has a rich history, is sometimes humorous, and often spiteful. In 1908 Garvey White left 50 cents to his son-in-law and directed that the purpose of the gift was to "enable him to buy for himself a good stout rope with which to hang himself, and thus rid mankind of one of the most infamous scoundrels that ever roamed this broad land or dwelt outside of a penitentiary.”
In response to the beyond the grave jabs, targets of the comments have sought remedies from courts to either have the will redacted to save their reputation or to recover money from the estates of the angry decedents. However, few attempts at bringing a testamentary libel claim have succeeded. Currently the only states with un-overturned cases that have recognized the tort are Tennessee and New York, and the case law is 70 to 100 years old. The odds favor the dead for who gets the last word.
See David Kluft, Defamation From Beyond the Grave: Using Your Last Will to Get in the Last Word, Trademark and Copyright Blog, Oct. 27, 2014.
Special thanks to Charles A Irvin for bringing this article to my attention.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
After a long battle with Parkinsons, real estate tycoon Bernard Spitzer died at the age of 90 earlier this month. His son, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, is in line for $6 million more than either of his siblings after the details of his father’s will were revealed.
While Bernard left 10 percent of his $500 million fortune to each of his three children, Eliot was left an additional $6 million to be paid after his mother Anne passes away.
Despite his assertions, this is not the first time Eliot has financially benefitted from his father's wealth. In 1994, Eliot was given $4.3 million in his failed bid to become the New York Attorney General. Eliot also stayed rent free in one of Bernard's apartments, and he earned thousands of dollars managing his father's investments. According to Bernard's will, all debts owed to him by his children have been written off.
The remaining $250 million was donated to the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust. In his will Bernard wrote, “I am mindful and take pride in the accomplishments of my children and the fact that they are established in life, in largest measure through their own talents and efforts, but as well, if in smaller measure, through the contributions of their mother and mine during our lifetime. It is for these reasons, and not through any lack of love for them, that I have left a substantial portion of my estate to the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable trust.” Through the charitable trust, Bernard helped found the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and gave $15 million to New York’s American Museum of Natural History for the Hall of Human Origins.”
See Chris Pleasance, Eliot Spitzer’s Tycoon Father Left the Disgraced Politician $6 Million MORE Than His Other Two Children, Daily Mail, Nov. 11, 2014.
Special thanks to Joel Dobris (Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.
The late Robin Williams left behind an estate valued at $50 million to his three children, with his wife Susan Schneider cared for under the terms of a prenuptial agreement.
According to Williams’ legal documents, a financial trust was established for his children. The full extent of that trust’s disbursement was planned to occur in stages, where his children are to receive the trust property at ages 21, 25 and 30. His son Zak was also “entitled to distributions of principal in such amounts as the Trustees consider necessary for support, education, and medical care.”
In the remaining months before his death, Williams had put his Napa Valley estate up for sale. In 2012 he attempted to sell the home for $35 million but was unsuccessful. In April this year he re-listed the home for a reduced rate. It is unknown whether Susan will stay at the house under the terms of the prenup or whether she will receive the proceeds of the property if it sold as the will states, “I intend by this will to dispose of all property wherever situated that I am entitled to dispose of by will.”
See Sara Nathan and Martin Dryan, Robin Williams Left His $50 Million Estate to His Three Kids, His Will Reveals. His Widow Susan Also Gets a Slice of His Fortune—As Couple Signed a Prenup Before Marriage, Mail Online, Nov. 11, 2014.
In general, the concept of testamentary freedom makes a person free to dispose of their property as they see fit when they die. However some decisions may be held to be against public policy and that freedom may be limited. Here are some of the key controversial estate planning decisions that may garner limitations and ignite an expensive legal battle:
- Disinheriting a Spouse. The ability of a person to leave their spouse out of a will and leave them with nothing has been limited by states through spousal elections, which guarantee that a surviving spouse will get some portion of the estate.
- Encouraging Divorce. The threat of disinheritance in a will unless a person gets divorced is unlikely to be upheld, as provisions that encourage divorce or are viewed as anti-marriage are disfavored by states.
- Limiting Marriage Choice. Will provisions that require marriage to a person of a set religion create a struggle between freedom of religion and testamentary freedom, and even though a similar provision has been upheld in Illinois, it creates public policy concerns.
See Ian Holzhauer, Controversial Estate Plans: Can You Legally Encourage Divorce? Disinherit a Spouse? Make Religious Restrictions?, Tailored Estate Planning, Nov. 12, 2014.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
In 2012 Sam Simon, the creator of The Simpsons, was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Twice divorced with no children, he has decided to give away his life’s earnings to charities working with the homeless and promoting animal rights.
“A lot of it is selfish. I get to watch these animals that have been in concrete bunkers their whole lives take their first step on grass. I fly my friends out to watch it. There is no area of charity right now that you get fast results, and see changes, as with animal rights. There are victories every day.” Mr. Simon has been working with Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), to devise a series of projects to improve the lives of animals. Mr. Simon stated, “I feel it is my responsibility to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
Although Mr. Simon’s cancer is not curable, he is living out the rest of his life happily, surrounded by his ex-wives and friends.
See Harriet Alexander, Dying Creator of The Simpsons Gives Away His $100m Fortune, The Telegraph, Nov. 11, 2014.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
“Where the Wild Things Are,” “In the Night Kitchen,” and “Chicken Soup With Rice,” are just a few beloved children’s books written by Maurice Sendak. The author and illustrator, who passed away in 2012 at age 84, gifted by will his rare book collection and personal works to the Rosenback Museum and Library in Philadelphia.
However, according to a lawsuit filed by the museum last week, the items have yet to be turned over. “According to the suit, the Sendak trustees have turned over fewer than half the hundreds of items in Sendak’s rare-book collection. In fact, the estate has told the Rosenbach it had no intention of transferring ownership of several extremely valuable volumes by Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter because they are children’s books, not rare books.”
The suit was filed in Connecticut where there are tentative plans to establish a museum and study center. Many of the items in Rosenbach’s care are intended to support that museum, “But his will directed the estate and Rosenbach to reach a deal whereby the museum would continue to display many items. Such a deal, long expected, has not been reached.”
The lawsuit requests the probate court to compel individuals who overlap as executors of Sendak’s estate and officers of the Maurice Sendak Foundation to carry out Sendak’s wishes.
See Carolyn Kellogg, Maurice Sendak’s Rare Book Collection is Subject of New Lawsuit, Nov. 10, 2014.
Special thanks to Karen E. Boxx (University of Washington School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.
As we remember those who have served our country and those who continue to protect our freedoms, the poignant last words of thousands of brave World War I soldiers are revealed.
Private messages of soldiers who died fighting became part of the England and Wales online archive of 278,000 soldiers’ wills. The wills, which were carried around by soldiers at all times in a pocket book tucked into their uniform, signify their last ever personally written record.
The documents detail soldiers’ last wishes and were put online last year by HM Courts & Tribunals Service to allow people to search for any messages sent home by their relatives. Already, more than one million searches have been made. In one message a soldier writes, “I am only sorry that I did not see you all before I went but . . . mother dear do not lose heart I may come back again.”
See Shailesh Vara, Final Words of Fallen Heroes Unearthed, Gov.UK, Nov. 11, 2014.
When author Maurice Sendak died a little over two years ago, his will left a large rear-books collection to the Rosenbach Museum and Library where he was involved as a board member and frequently deposited his books. However, his will left some aspects to be negotiated by his executors and the museum. No agreement has been reached and the museum has grown concerned that an upcoming auction by Sendak's estate will include some of the rare books.
The museum has brought suit in probate court to prevent any of the disputed books from being auctioned and to compel the estate to hand over the books that the museum believes Sendak intended the museum to have. The estate denies that any of the disputed books will be auctioned and argues that some of the disputed books are not required to be given to museum because they are not actually "rare books," either because they are children's books or are not bound.
See Peter Dobrin, Rosenbach Sues Sendak Foundation Over Rare Books, Philly, Nov. 9, 2014.
Special thanks to Reid K. Weisbord (Vice Dean, Professor of Law, School of Law-Newark) for bringing this article to my attention.
Monday, November 10, 2014
For families with multiple adult children, it is not uncommon for some of the children to either know or have an expectancy of what their inheritance from their parents will be. It can cause family strife or resentment when the plan changes and one or more of the children have made decisions based on their expectations. For example, if some children receive gifts or aid for unexpected financial pitfalls that then alter the inheritance split of the estate. It can be helpful if the family members can alter their perception of inheritance equality to more than a mathematical formula but as an attempt to provide aid as needed.
See Carolyn Hax, Carolyn Hax: A Late Change to Dad's Will is Causing Resentment, The Washington Post, Nov. 6, 2014.
Special thanks to Naomi Cahn (Harold H. Greene Professor of Law, George Washington University School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.