You may believe that estate disputes most commonly happen when there is a large amount of money to fight over. That can be true, as evidenced in the following examples.
Case Examples of Rich Estate Disputes
Liquor magnate Michael Erceg was thought to be worth over $600 million when his helicopter crashed, killing him at the age of 50. He left behind his widow, children and his elderly mother. The eventual sale of his empire to Japanese giant Asashi for $1.5 billion in 2011 set off a chain reaction of estate disputes over the money.
His mother, Millie, filed a suit against his widow, Lynette, who was the trustee of the Erceg Family Trust, claiming that the sale of the assets of the business had been kept secret. She also filed a civil lawsuit which asked for details including valuations of the business, financial documents for the trust and the minutes of the trustee meetings.
The judge agreed to keep the exact proceedings of the court battle private, stating that “publication [of the facts] will widen an unfortunate family rift making settlement more difficult.”
Lynette’s reaction to the lawsuit stated that they preferred to keep the details of the beneficiaries of the trust, including their identities and distributions, private so that further disharmony between family members could be prevented. The judge stated that “there is already an unfortunate history of conflict and tension between them.”
Businessman Tracy Gough died in 1955 and the bitter estate disputes surrounding his complex trust structure continues to this day. The estate is said to be worth $350 million, and the majority of the assets are held in trusts. At the time of his death, he had three children from two marriages.
The beneficaries of his trusts were his children, all of whom have now died, and his grandchildren. While they were still alive, the two brothers Owen and Blair disagreed about who should have control of the trusts and set up sub-trusts each, appointing themselves as the heads of their own respective trusts. But with the main trust now being wound up, the battle has ended up in the High Court, with the estates of both brothers still fighting for control.
Businessman and philanthropist Hugh Green was worth about $350 million when he died in 2012. His charitable trust gave away about $3 million each year under the guidance of his daughter Maryanne. He had signed a new will months before his death which left the bulk of his fortune to a trust controlled by two of his other children. A year after his death, Maryanne challenged her father’s will, claiming that those two children had unduly influenced their father into signing a new will.
Minimising the Risk of Estate Disputes
However, it is also true that estate disputes happen between ordinary people and modest estates. There are ways to minimise the risk of litigation over an estate. Unfortunately, families don’t necessarily discuss the plans of the will and the results are taken as a shock. Therefore, you should discuss your will with your family so there are no surprises. If you wish to leave your fortune to charity, you should let your children know as they may be expecting to receive something. Nothing creates estate disputes quite like the shock of discovering that a loved one’s will is very different to the one that was expected.
If you wish to leave one child more of an inheritance than the rest of their siblings, this should also be communicated to your beneficiaries. You may have very good reasons for doing this, but unless you communicate these, your children may not know. One may believe that they have been treated unfairly due to this decision, and decide to challenge your will. One tip is to provide a clear reason for every decision made within your will.
Another recommendation is to provide your will and the reasoning for your decisions to your lawyer. This will provide the beneficiaries clear evidence as to why you have made certain decisions. Including a capacity report to your will is also evidence that you made those decisions with clear mental capacity. This may become more of an issue as you age.
There are many other ways to reduce the chances of your estate being challenged, and one of the key tips is to discuss everything with your lawyer. They will be able to provide adequate advice for your situation and ensure your wishes are fulfilled. Letting your family know of your wishes and the way you have set out your will is also vitally important.
There are 10,000 lawyers in Queensland. Only 43 are specialists in wills and estates, and Bryan Mitchell is one of them. We offer a free, 10-minute phone consultation and every case receives the benefit of Bryan’s expertis
Advice should be urgently sought from a lawyer who is skilled in challenging a will and the complex law around wills and estates. There are strict time-frames within which to act, and the actions required can be complex.
If you are concerned about estate disputes, contact us
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