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Combative author leaves behind a legal dispute over his will


Even many of those Washington residents who never read one of Gore Vidal's novels or saw one of his plays knew who he was. For decades, the author was known as much for his wit as for his literary works. That wit made him a great interview subject for magazine profiles and documentary filmmakers, and it also made him a formidable adversary in a number of feuds with other artists and intellectuals. That kind of dispute is carrying on after his death last year. A legal dispute now pits Vidal's family members against administrators of a trust he left behind.

Vidal's half-sister has challenged the author's will, in which he left his entire estate to Harvard University. According to her complaint, Vidal revised his will the year before he died to give his estate - reportedly worth $37 million, plus continuing royalties from his literary works - to a university he never attended. The bequest to the university came in the form of a trust that controls the late author's estate and its future earnings. The half-sister argues that dementia and alcoholism had rendered Vidal incapable of creating a valid will at the time.

According to family members, Vidal's previous will had given his entire estate to his longtime partner, but his partner died in 2003, sending Vidal into a long mental decline. They said he began drinking heavily and began to show signs of dementia.

To leave a valid will, a person must have testamentary capacity. That is, the person must pass certain requirements of mental competency. If they believe the person lacked testamentary capacity, family members or other interested parties may contest the will in probate court.

To reduce the complexity of probate proceedings and try to avoid the chance that loved ones don't have to go through a legal dispute at a difficult time, it is always a good idea to get a will written before any question of mental capacity has arisen. It's also a good idea to discuss estate plans with one's relatives. A Washington attorney with experience in estate planning can advise on how to handle these matters with efficiency and sensitivity.

Source: New York Times, "For Gore Vidal, a Final Plot Twist," Tim Teeman, Nov. 8, 2013

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