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Widow, children at odds over $10 million estate

Washington residents may not know his name, but they have probably seen some of photographer Bert Stern's work. His images of Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn earned him a place in the National Film Registry, and his nude photos of Marilyn Monroe, taken for Vogue magazine just six weeks before her death, helped make him millions of dollars. Now that fortune is the subject of an inheritance dispute.

When he died earlier this year at age 83, Stern's will left most of his $10 million estate to his much-younger wife - a wife about whom many people familiar with Stern apparently didn't even know. It also threatened to disinherit anyone who questioned the will. Despite this warning, Stern's three adult children from a previous marriage still are challenging the will. They hope the court will choose to distribute their father's estate more in line with an earlier will that Stern had executed.

A will executed in 1997 called for most of Stern's property to be divided equally among his three children. In 2009, however, the widow says that she and Stern married and he wrote a new will. A 2010 will pours over most of his estate into a trust that would remain under her control.

When executed wisely, a will is part of a simple and effective estate plan designed to ensure the well-being of one's family, but when executed under suspicious circumstances, it can be a source of conflict. For instance, when a person executes a will that leaves most of his or her estate to a new, much younger spouse, it raises the question as to whether the person leaving the will - known as the testator - was being exploited or coerced into writing the will. If so, a court could void the will and rule that it was the result of undue influence. This question could be especially relevant in cases in which the marriage was not widely known to others.

When Washington residents put together a will, they must do their best to avoid these kinds of questions coming up in the future. It can be a good idea for testators to discuss their plans with their families and to make their intentions as to the disposition of their assets following death perfectly clear.

Source: New York Post, "Marilyn photog's inheritance fight," Julia Marsh, Sept. 23, 2013

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