Some families are more prone to conflict than others. Even the most close-knit family, however, can expierence conflict when a loved one dies. In some cases sentimental reasons are behind will contests and estate disputes, in other cases, financial gain drives close relatives to battle it out in court. Regardless of motive, every year thousands of deaths result in estate diputes being waged.
One such recent and notable estate dispute involves the estate of the late Hauguette Clark. The last surviving daughter of the multi-millionare copper king William A. Clark, Mrs. Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104. Upon her death, she had no close surviving heirs, but a total fo 21 distant relatives many of whom she did not know by name.
When Mrs. Clark was 98-years-old she apparently drafted and signed two separate wills, one month apart. In the first, the majority of her estimated $300 million estate was bequeathed to the 21 distant relatives. Additionally, in the first will, a painting worth $25 million was gifted to an art gallery. However, one month later, Mrs. Clark drafted and signed another will which left nothing to the 21 relatives. Rather, the second will left the bulk of the estate to the hospital where Mrs. Clark lived for the last 20 years of her life. Also included in the second will, were directions to set up a foundation at mansion owned by Clark in which her vast collections of art and dolls were to be housed and displayed.
Since Clark's death in 2011 when the existence and contents of the two wills became public, millions of dollars have been spent by interested parties to contest the wills. While this case is extreme in its details and potential financial gain, it provides important lessons on steps individuals can take to avoid estate disputes after their death.
When a will is drafted and signed, it's important to ensure all interested parties are aware of the will's existence and of the terms contained therein. It's also wise, when possible, to draft such documents well in advance of old age. If an individual fears their will may still be subject to a will contest by surviving heirs or interested parties, establishing a trust may be a better option.
Source: The New York Times, "How to Avoid an Estate Battle After You Die," Paul Sullivan, June 14, 2013