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December 2008

Exploitation of France's richest woman? Her daughter says yes, but she says no!

Liliane Bettencourt is considered to be France's richest woman.  She inherited the controlling share of L'Oreal (if you're a man and don't know what L'Oreal is, ask your wife or girlfriend).  She presently owns about 28% of the cosmetics company and has an estimated fortune worth 23 billion dollars (U.S.).  Yet her only daughter, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a lawsuit alleging that her 86-year-old mother is incompetent and is being taken advantage of by an artist and photographer described as a "dandy" and a "charmer" according to this article in The Australian.

Meyers' lawyer charges that Francois-Marie Banier has exploited Bettencourt to the tune of more 1.3 billion dollars in "gifts".  Bettencourt strongly disagrees.  She says she was examined by a psychiatrist a couple days before Christmas and proved she was competent.  She calls Banier a long-time friend of 20 years, both to her and to her late husband.  While she admits giving him valuable gifts, including a Picasso and a Matisse, the value is small compared to her total net worth.

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Lee Marvin's widow and daughter battle over his wishes

Lee Marvin, star of such films as Cat Ballou and The Dirty Dozen, died more than 20 years ago.  So why is his family fighting in court now?  Not only are they fighting, but his wife is trying to evict their daughter from her home.Lee Marvin 

The Tucson Citizen recently reported in this article that Lee's daughter, Wendy King, has been living with her family in the house for 25 years.  This house, however, is owned by Lee Marvin's trust.  Lee's widow, Pamela -- Wendy's own mother -- is the trustee of that trust, so she gets to decide what to do with the trust's property, including Wendy's home. 

Wendy disagrees and believes her mother is not acting in good faith.  She says that Pamela wants to evict her because she doesn't like Wendy's husband.  Pamela says that isn't true, although she clearly doesn't like him.  Of course, she believes she has good reason not to.  He pled guilty a couple years ago to a charge related to child molestation, and Pamela believes her daughter is a battered spouse. 

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Is Elvis still alive, and does he have a secret half-sister?

Last week, a woman claiming to be Elvis' half-sister and daughter to Elvis' father Vernon Presley (pictured together, below), withdrew her claim from probate court.  She was trying to be declared as Vernon Presley's heir.  In fact, Eliza Presley (who had her name legally changed from Alice Elizabeth Tiffin this summer) was granted the right to re-open Vernon's Estate in October.  Read about it here:  Estate of Elvis' dad reopened for woman claiming she's his daughter (Memphis Commercial Appeal, Oct 8, 2008). Elvis and Vernon Presley

Eliza's story began when she received a letter from a man named Jessie Presley.  And get this -- this man actually is Elvis according to Eliza (still alive and kicking!) -- and she has the DNA to prove it!  He mailed her a letter and licked the envelope giving her the proof she needs (or so she says).  Eliza only withdrew her claim so she could file it in another court.

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Peter Falk may need a guardian

Sadly, the daughter of actor Peter Falk, age 81, has filed for guardianship / conservatorship over her father.  Catherine Falk recently initiated legal proceedings in Los Angeles County Superior Court (which is what the local probate court is called there) due to her father's Alzheimer's disease.  She asks for the appointment of a conservator over his person (called guardianship in most states) because he "requires full-time custodial care for his health and safety."  She also asks for a conservator over his finances to make his financial decisions to protect him from "fraud or undue influence" because she is worried that he may be deceived into transferring away his property.Falk 2

Guardianships and Conservatorships are probate court proceedings where people ask a judge to declare someone legally incapable of making appropriate decisions and to appoint someone to make decisions for him or her.  These, like other legal proceedings, are public records and can be difficult and expensive when conflicts or other problems arise.

Like other probate court matters, they can usually be avoided.  If Peter Falk had a proper estate plan, including a power of attorney, he could have named his daughter or someone else he trusted to make his decisions for him if the time came when he no longer could.  Of course, even when someone has a power of attorney, court proceedings like these can still be necessary if there is family conflict.

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Scammers, thieves and crooks

Probate litigation consists of more than family feuds.  Sadly, I see far too many instances of fraud, exploitation and theft against seniors.  Scam artists often seek out those with diminished capacity, loneliness, a trusting nature, and -- of course --available money.  These cases run the gambit from a stolen checkbook or ATM card to very sophisticated fraud.  Either way, the results can be devastating. 

On December 11, 2008, the SEC formally charged Bernard L. Madoff with running a fraudulent Ponzi scheme of mind-blowing proportions.  You can read the formal SEC Complaint.  The allegations include statements from his employees who said that Madoff took money from investors without actually investing it.  Instead he kept or spent the money, lied to his investors, and took money from one to give to the next. 


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Curious about Paul Newman's will?

According to a Consumer Reports study, more than two-thirds of Americans don't even have wills!  Do you have one?  Great!  Do you think that this means you're done with your estate planning?  Heck no, you're not!

Why?  Even though wills are the basic estate planning document that everyone needs, there are drawbacks.  For one thing, they are public records.  That's right, when you die, your family has to file your will with probate court (although some states use different names -- New York calls them Surrogate's Court, for example).  Once your will is filed, anyone can read it, copy it, and -- yes -- even post it on the Internet if they want.

Want to see Paul Newman's will?  Like dozens of other celebrity wills, you can read all about it here:  Radar Online Exclusive: Paul Newman's will.   Paul Newman

Unlike certain other recently-deceased celeb's (Heath Ledger, for instance), Newman was smart enough to update his will -- this one was created April 11, 2008, and he amended it with a codicil dated July 24th.  Newman was very thorough, addressing his airplane and race cars, Oscars and other awards, charitable foundations, lucrative businesses, and the rights to market his name and image.  His will leaves most of his assets to a trust he created (again, he was smart), his wife and his charitable foundation. 

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So what's so interesting about probate litigation cases?

Whether they involve celebrities or regular people, the stories generated by this area of the law can be intriguing.  Take the case of Billy and Kitty Tipton.  Never heard of them?  Unless you spent a lot of time in Spokane, Washington during the 1980's, I'm not surprised.  Billy Tipton was a jazz musician who died in 1989 when it was revealed, for the first time, that he was actually (drum roll please) a woman!  That's right, he -- er, uh -- she had been masquerading as a man throughout her life!  Apparently women weren't always allowed to play in certain clubs, so she became a he and launched a jazz music career.  She never looked back.


But that didn't stop her from getting married to a woman -- a stripper, no less.  Kathleen "Kitty" Tipton Oakes was married to Billy Tipton for 18 years; together, they had three sons.  They were adopted, of course.

You may be wondering, how does this relate to "probate litigation"?  When Kitty died in 2007, she didn't have a will.  Her estate consisted of $300,000 from the sale of the house she kept from her marriage to Billy Tipton.  Her three sons, a mysterious woman also claiming to be a child (even though she is only 11 years younger than Kitty), and 30 distant relatives are now battling in probate court over who will inherit. 

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