Nothing for the family: wills and unwelcome surprises

 22 December 2022
Nothing for the family: wills and unwelcome surprises

Many of us wouldn’t consider a will the most exciting of documents, but their contents can be life-changing. Many a classic detective novel revolves around a will being read aloud by the family solicitors, and the family shocked by its contents.

Indeed, we see it so often on TV, we probably consider that it doesn’t happen much at all nowadays. Yet it does, and far more often than you think!

Larry King and the Handwritten Will

US chat show legend Larry King died in January 2021, leaving an estate worth $2 million, and other assets in trust. The family found a handwritten will from 2019 which originally left 20% of his estate to his children, However, at some point the 20% had been crossed out and replaced with 100%. King was divorcing his wife at the time of his death but it had not been finalised, so his wife contested the will. 

The fact that the will was handwritten and the amendment undated and unverified would have complicated matters greatly. An agreement was reached outside of court in an undisclosed settlement. The majority of King's total $144 was held in trusts, so would not have been covered by the settlement. That hasn't stopped King's widow Shawn King 

"suing her former business managers, accusing them of stealing money and conspiring to help King’s son Larry King Jr. usurp her as executor of the estate." 

The morals of this story? Trusts are a Very Good Thing, make sure your will is drawn up by a profession, and amended by the addition of a codicil or similar. 


A (local) tale of two wills

Southampton-based businessman Kevin Reeves died leaving an estate worth over £100million - and two wills. His son Bill thought the 2012 version was valid, which split the estate between him, his sister Louise and other family members. However, his sister presented a will from 2014, which left almost everything to her, and just £200K of personal effects to her multi-millionaire brother.  Bill contested the will and after a three year legal battle, the court found that the  'very materialistic' Louise had probably 'engineered' the 2014 will. 

The High Court ruled that the 2012 will should stand, with presiding judge Mr Justice Michael Green remarking:

"I believe that Louise is a risk-taker, and she can be manipulative. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. I believe that she was prepared to take the risk, because the prize was so great, of being found out by the deceased in relation to the 2014 will and she would have taken the consequences." 

The takeaway from this tale is that the Reeves' were a large, blended family with a history of family separations. It highlights the need to ensure a will covering so many people and complex relationships is made clear and unequivocable, and any updates communicated to the family if possible.

All for love

On June 5th 2021, M. Richard Robinson Jr. suddenly died when out for a walk in Martha’s Vineyard, USA. Aged 84, Mr Robinson was the owner of children’s books publisher Scholastic who publish the Harry Potter books in the US. His will, dating from 2018, left the publishing house worth $1.2billion plus his personal possessions to his former love Iole Lucchese, the company's strategy officer. In his will, Robinson Jnr described Ms. Lucchese as “my partner and closest friend.”

Mr Robinson’s ex-wife and two sons, who believed the relationship was over years ago, were left out of the will completely.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Some family members are unhappy and are reviewing their legal options ... with concerns running the gamut from wanting to maintain Scholastic’s independence to rawness about an outsider having control of Mr. Robinson’s personal possessions.”

Local scandals

It’s not just billionaires who can spring surprises. A lady who lived a few doors down from our social media team had been cared for over many years by her dedicated son-in-law and daughters. In her will, their mother left everything to an illegitimate son that her family didn’t know existed. He got a house he’d never seen, and a sizeable amount of money too, from a mother he never knew. It came as a considerable surprise to everyone, including him, and was the talk of the neighbourhood for weeks.

Leaving everything to the cat

It may be a mock threat that you’ll leave everything to the cat, but that’s precisely what singer Dusty Springfield did. When she died of breast cancer in 1999, she left $12million to her cat Nicholas, along with specific instructions on his food, living accommodation and his choice of bedtime music!

Or the dog

Media mogul Simon Cowell has declared that his $570million estate will not all pass to his son. Cowell plans to leave his money to charities that focus on children and dogs. Oprah Winfrey, worth a cool $3billion, won’t leave all of her fortune to her five dogs. They will have to be content with just $30million.

Respecting your wishes

Comedian extraordinaire Robin Williams fell out with the Disney Studio over his fee for the original animated “Aladdin”, which netted the studio hundreds of millions. Williams’ will

> “contained a prohibition on using (outtakes) material for 25 years after his death, ultimately putting the kibosh on any Disney plans for a posthumous performance as the Genie.”

Contesting a will

According to research by Direct Line Life Insurance, 25% of Brits would be prepared to go to court to contest a loved one’s will. Interestingly, however, the top five reasons for families contesting a will and the most successful grounds in court are quite different, as research amongst family law professionals revealed.

The five legal grounds for contesting a will are:

1) The deceased did not have the required mental capacity

2) The deceased did not properly understand and approve the content of the will

3) Undue influence

4) Forgery and fraud

5) Rectification (will does not reflect the deceased’s wishes due to a clerical error misunderstanding of the deceased’s wishes)

The most popular reason for families contesting is “undue influence”, where the deceased is said to have signed a will under duress or unreasonable pressure. However, this is often very difficult to prove.

In contrast, the most successful grounds in terms of courtroom success is “Lack of knowledge and approval”, closely followed by “testamentary capacity” (the lack of mental ability to write or amend a will).

Making sure your will is watertight

Writing a will is something you need to spend time planning and executing. It is important to say what you want to happen as much as what you do not want! At Panthera Estate Planning, we offer advice on writing a will that ensures assets, monies and property are inherited by those you want to benefit. B using Panthera Estate Planning, you can ensure your will is properly drawn up, signed and witnessed.

Combined with Trusts, the addition of a Will Clarity statement provides comprehensive and clarity instructors for your executor/s. A Will Clarity Statement explains the WHY behind your wishes. It can be crucial in managing expectations, whilst deterring any potential claims against your will.

If you want to make a new will or amend an existing will:

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I have no reservations about Panthera - they appear to be a forward thinking company making life for the client a pleasure to deal with. I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone who needs sound professional advice concerning Estate Planning.

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