Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Siblings Fight Over Estate of Mother Whose Land Yielded a T. Rex Skeleton

WillsThe death of Darlene Williams in 2020 has sparked a legal battle among her children over the inheritance of her estate, valued at more than $8 million. The focal point of the dispute is the conflicting wills left by Ms. Williams, one from 2017 and another from 2020, just before her death. The 2020 will designate one of her daughters, Sandra Williams Luther, as the sole heir and executor, while another daughter, Jaqueline Schwartz, disputes its legitimacy. Schwartz argues that her mother, who was critically ill at the time, was susceptible to undue influence, raising questions about the validity of the will.

In addition to the will dispute, Schwartz filed a petition accusing Luther and another sibling, Carson Williams, of mismanaging their mother's funds. Allegedly, Darlene Williams sold her home less than two weeks before her death, with the proceeds intended for her estate. Schwartz claims that Luther and Williams, in collaboration, converted and misappropriated the funds for their own enrichment. The lawyers for the siblings have yet to respond to requests for comment, and the exact amounts each sibling might gain from the estate remain unclear.

The underlying source of the family's wealth is the fossilized skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue, discovered on the family's South Dakota ranch in 1990. Sue is considered the most complete T. rex fossil ever found. She has been at the center of legal disputes since its discovery. The legal battle over Darlene Williams's estate adds another chapter to Sue's complex history. It highlights the contentious nature of inheritance issues within the family.

For more information see Lola Fadulu and Michael Levenson “Siblings Fight Over Estate of Mother Whose Land Yielded a T.Rex Skeleton”, The New York Times, December 3, 2023.

Special thanks to Lewis Saret (Attorney, Washington, D.C.) for bringing this article to my attention. 

December 20, 2023 in Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Center for Rural Pennsylvania: Survey of Written Wills

WillsA survey conducted in September 2023 by Susquehanna Polling and Research reveals that less than half of rural and urban adults in Pennsylvania have a written will outlining their wishes for handling money and estate after death. 

The poll involved 700 registered voters in Pennsylvania and was conducted from September 19-28, 2023, with a margin of error of +/-3.7 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Respondents unsure if they had a written will were excluded from the analysis.

The analysis indicates that age and educational attainment play a role, with older and more educated individuals being more likely to have a written will. The top reason for not having a will is the perception of not needing one, mainly due to insufficient assets or the belief that the family will inherit everything. The survey also shows variations based on gender and race, with men and white individuals more likely to have a written will. Additionally, urban residents with higher educational levels are more likely to possess a will. 

Recognizing individuals' desires for asset distribution after death is crucial for families and presents an opportunity for community foundations. These organizations could benefit from potential benefactors' assets through basic planning efforts, contributing to community development. The study highlights that 46 percent of rural Pennsylvanians with a written will align with the national rate.

For more information see Survey of Written Wills”, Center for Rural Pennsylvania, November 2023.

December 2, 2023 in Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Article: Reviving Revival in the Law of Wills

Richard F. Storrow (City University of New York School of Law) published an Article in the Texas Tech Law Review, Reviving Revival in the Law of Wills, October 2023. Provided below is an introduction to the Article:

When a testator dies after executing a succession of wills, the doctrine of revival may come into play to establish the testator’s final estate plan. Interjurisdictional inconsistency plagues the doctrine, making it particularly perplexing to testators. The Uniform Probate Code’s multipronged solution lacks substance, particularly in cases of revocation by implication. These problems with the revival doctrine put the paramount concern of carrying out a testator’s intent at risk without any countervailing advantage of protecting dependent survivors or administrative efficiency. This Article explains how the theory of ambulation shapes testators’ expectations about revival and argues for the reinstatement of revival as the default rule with nonrevival available by a testator’s express election.

November 15, 2023 in Articles, Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 23, 2023

Mysterious Chicago recluse Joseph Stancak’s $11 million unclaimed estate thrown into chaos by newly surfaced will

MoneyJoseph Stancak died in 2016, leaving behind $11 million with no will or apparent heirs. Stancak's estate is considered one of the largest unclaimed estates in the United States, with more than 119 distant relatives around the globe who were informed that they would receive payouts. Then, a mysterious will surfaced in Cook County probate court this summer.

In June, a petition was filed asking that the newly turned-up will be probated, so a hold was put on any inheritance payouts until the will's legitimacy could be sorted.

The document presented was a will dated August 19, 2015, leaving Stancak's entire estate to Smart Kids Child Care Inc. Only two copies were produced: one to be held by Smart Kids Child Care Inc. and one by the lawyer who allegedly drafted the will, a personal injury attorney John Alleman. But Alleman died in a plane crash a few months after the will was signed.

The document has been called "highly suspicious" and "poorly drafted" and was only discovered after the unclaimed estate made international headlines. Attorney Ken Piercey, who was appointed independent administrator of Stancak's estate, says Stancak had zero connection to Smart Kids Childcare, which is located in the Bronx.

For more information see Mitch Dudek “SW Side recluse’s record-setting $11 million unclaimed estate thrown into chaos by newly surfaced will” Chicago Sun Times, October 21, 2023.

Special thanks to Laura Galvan (Attorney, San Antonio, Texas) for bringing this article to my attention.  

October 23, 2023 in Current Events, Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 13, 2023

Article: A Battle of Wills: The Uniform Probate Code Versus Empirical Evidence

Adam J. Hirsch (University of San Diego) published an Article in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, A Battle of Wills: The Uniform Probate Code Versus Empirical Evidence, October 2023. Provided below is an introduction to the Article:

This Article explores the goals, methods, and present state of empirical research in the inheritance field. The Article synthesizes extant empirical studies—including unpublished ones and two original data sets presented here for the first time—and compares them with default rules currently found in the Uniform Probate Code. The Article proposes revisions to the Code on the basis of those studies. Finally, the Article suggests changes to the Uniform Law Commission’s oversight process to make the Code more responsive to empirical evidence as it emerges in the literature.

October 13, 2023 in Articles, Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Where's the inheritance? Why fewer older Americans are writing wills or estate planning

WillsThe percentage of older Americans with wills or trusts for asset distribution after death has decreased since the mid-2000s, dropping from 70% to 63% between 2008 and 2018, according to research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The decrease cannot be solely attributed to procrastination or financial constraints, as these concerns have always existed. Research from Boston College and other sources indicates that Black and Hispanic families are significantly less likely to have wills than non-Hispanic white families. 

Another reason many Americans acknowledge the importance of writing a will but often delay the process due to its complexity and the uncomfortable subject matter of death. Procrastination is a common obstacle to estate planning, with many people intending to address it at some point in the future.

For more information see Daniel de Vise “Where’s the inheritance? Why fewer older Americans are writing wills or estate planning” USA Today, October 3, 2023.

Special thanks to Deborah Matthews (Virginia Estate Planning Attorney) for bringing this article to my attention.

October 7, 2023 in Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

A Battle of Wills: The Uniform Probate Code Versus Empirical Evidence

Prof. Adam Hirsch (Napoleon Jones Professor of Law and Herzog Endowed Scholar University of San Diego School of Law) has just posted his newest article on SSRN, A Battle of Wills: The Uniform Probate Code Versus Empirical EvidenceHere is the abstract of his article:

This Article explores the goals, methods, and present state of empirical research in the inheritance field. The Article synthesizes extant empirical studies—including unpublished ones and two original data sets presented here for the first time—and compares them with default rules currently found in the Uniform Probate Code. The Article proposes revisions to the Code on the basis of those studies. Finally, the Article suggests changes to the Uniform Law Commission’s oversight process to make the Code more responsive to empirical evidence as it emerges in the literature.

October 3, 2023 in Articles, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Article: Son Preference in Testate Succession: An Empirical Study of Estate Distribution in Wills

Yun-chien Chang (Cornell Law School,) Sieh-Chuen Huang (National Taiwan University- College of Law,) Su-Li Her (Notary Public Office) published an Article, Son Preference in Testate Succession: An Empirical Study of Estate Distribution in Wills, 2023. Provided below is the Abstract:

Despite a plethora of normative discussions on gender equality as well as empirical studies on gender discrimination and gender effects in various settings, there is a paucity of large-scale empirical studies on son preference by ordinary people in asset distribution. Using an idiosyncratic data set on more than 1800 notarized or authenticated wills in Taiwan, this article investigates whether testators show son preference in distributing estates in wills, and if so, what the driving factors are. It finds that son preferences exist in no more than 29% of the studied wills. Moreover, no matter whether son preference is broadly or narrowly defined, and no matter whether the sample is limited to land distribution or not, the pattern is consistent: aboriginal people exhibit less son preference, as they are matrimonial; female testators do not tend to favor sons; in wills distributing more valuable estate and those distributing land, son preference is more pronounced. Notarized wills tend to contain son-preferring provisions, likely because the formal validity of notarized wills is usually upheld if disputes arise, and male-preferring provisions often violate the mandatory share law. Thus, testators, when preparing a will that favors their sons, elect to notarize their wills. Finally, the strategic bequest theory explains the testator decisions in some wills but the altruism theory barely explains the estate distribution in any wills.

September 27, 2023 in Articles, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Happy National Make-A-Will Month!

WillsAugust has been dubbed National Make-A-Will Month to serve as a reminder that all adults should have a will. Only one-third of all American adults have an estate plan in place, and a common misconception is that only the wealthy and famous need to think about what will happen to their property when they die. Creating a will helps prevent family conflict and eliminates confusion. More importantly, having a will creates a plan for caring for loved ones, like a legal guardian for minor children or who should care for pets.

Now is also an excellent time for the one-third of Americans with an estate plan to reflect on the details outlined in their will and take stock of any life changes, such as new children or grandchildren or property not previously covered.

 

August 1, 2023 in Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 31, 2023

Little Oversight, Deals Signed in the Dark: How Speculators Cash In When NYC Homeowners Die Without Wills

City_new_york_268292Studies show that only about one-third of Americans have an estate plan. Not having one can create a burden for loved ones, and in New York City, the stakes are higher for some homeowners who die without a will.

Borough public administrators may rely on neighbors, relatives, and funeral directors that knew the deceased to notify interested parties about the property they once owned. This process can take months or years, leaving room for outside investors known as "speculators," who place short-term bets on the market, to get involved and push for the sales of deeds below market rate. Understaffed agencies don’t have the resources to vet such deed transfers, opening up the potential for fraud. Lawmakers, court authorities, and city agencies have failed to safeguard such estates, as they cannot fully understand which properties lack an estate plan and where heirs might be vulnerable to real estate speculators.

For more information see George Joseph and Samantha Maldonado “Little Oversight, Deals Signed in the Dark: How Speculators Cash In When NYC Homeowners Die Without Wills” The City, July 26, 2023.

Special thanks to Joel C. Dobris (Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.

July 31, 2023 in Estate Planning - Generally, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0)