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Suspicious will leads to fight over $300 million estate


Washington probate courts must look at a valid will as the person's final say as to how all his or her assets should be distributed. Since the person is no longer around to correct or interpret the will, the court is very serious about sticking to the express terms of the will, so long as all the formal requirements of a will are met. However, there are cases in which all the formal requirements appear to be met, and yet the person's family members or other beneficiaries suspect that it does not represent the person's true wishes. Perhaps they suspect that the person was in poor mental health at the time the will was executed, or was coerced or manipulated by someone with undue influence over the person. In these cases, interested parties may contest the will in court.

In a probate dispute currently making its way through the courts, 20 relatives of a late wealthy copper heiress have challenged the woman's will. The woman died in 2011 at the age of 104, leaving behind a fortune worth about $300 million.

The woman executed two wills just six weeks apart in 2005. In the first will, she left most of her fortune to her relatives. In the second, the woman complained that her family members never visited her and gave them nothing. Instead, she set up a foundation for the arts and gave large amounts of funds to her doctor, her accountant, her lawyer and the hospital where she lived for many years.

The woman's relatives argue that she lacked the mental capacity to write a will and that therefore the court should rule it invalid. They also argue that some of them did, in fact, visit her and that others did not because they thought that she wanted her privacy.

Few Washington families can boast anything like $300 million in their fortunes, but the central issues in this case are not uncommon in many probate disputes. People write wills to help ensure the well-being of their family or friends or to provide for a charity. When wills are not clear, or are executed under suspicious circumstances, they can create confusion and conflict. One of the goals of a simple and effective estate plan should be to minimize the likelihood of this kind of conflict.

Source: The New York Times, "The Two Wills of the Heiress Huguette Clark," Anemona Hartocollis, Sept. 13, 2013

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