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Trustees, foundation in legal dispute over artist's estate

Death is a difficult time for numerous reasons. The coping process is challenging but dealing with assets and property following the death of a loved one can be complex, especially when there are multiple trustees in charge of the estate.

With his famous "Combines," Robert Rauschenberg blurred the lines between painting, photography, sculpture and other forms of art and became one of the most influential artists in the world. He also became one of the most financially successful. When he died in 2008, he left behind an estate worth $600 million.

A philanthropist who believed in helping struggling artists, children's charities and environmental causes, Rauschenberg set up the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to carry on his charitable work after he died. To fund the foundation, he set up a trust which included most or all of his estate. As trustees he appointed three friends.

Those three friends are now engaged in a heated legal battle with the foundation and Rauschenberg's family over fees they wish to take from the trust in order to pay themselves for their work. The trustees claim that their work securing copyrights and managing the artist's work has resulted in a huge increase in the estate's value. The say it is now worth more than $2 billion due to their efforts. For their labors, they say they deserve a payment of $60 million.

The foundation and the family think that amount is far too high. One expert appointed by the foundation called the request "unconscionable." The dispute is set to go to trial this spring.

Trusts are some of the most powerful instruments available in estate planning. For asset protection, they can hardly be beat, but there are also many types of trusts with different purposes and requirements. For example, a charitable trust can provide assets for worthy causes over many generations. On a different scale, a so-called spendthrift trust can dole out money in regular payments to a beneficiary who might be tempted to spend an inheritance all at once.

Whatever the type and purpose of a trust, it's important to choose good trustees to administer it and to try to smooth relations between the trustees and the family or other beneficiaries. A professional with experience in the many facets of estate planning can help people make their intentions clear so that they can plan for different disputes that might come up in the future.

Source: Washington Post, "Late artist's trustees seeking $60 million in fees," Jan. 6, 2013

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