Probate lawyers for estate administrators (sometimes called executors or personal representatives) have to deal with all sorts of claims by creditors. Usually, these consist of people saying the person who died owed them money. Medical bills, unpaid credit card statements, and breach of contract claims are a few common examples. But sometimes the claims are not so common.
Morgan Dunn O'Connor is the executor of the Estate of her late mother, Marie O'Connor Sorenson. Immediately after becoming appointed, O'Connor had to deal with one of the most unusual claims any estate representative has even had to deal with.
The estate owns land along the Texas Gulf coast, about 160 miles southwest of Houston. Nathan Smith, a 39-year old musician from Los Angeles, insists that he has discovered a sunken ship lost in 1822 that carried gold now worth three billion dollars. How did he find it? Ah the powers of the Internet! Smith found it using Google Earth. Inspired by the movie National Treasure, he went to the spot with a metal detector and says it confirmed there was gold and silver.
Smith believes the ship sailed the Mission River, tried to escape a hurricane, and became stuck in the mud. The crew all died -- half on the trip, and the other half at the hands of a tribe of local cannibals (I didn't even know Texas had cannibals in 1822). Smith believes the gold is still there, waiting to be unearthed.
In 2007, he filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the spot of this buried treasure is considered to be "navigable waters", which means he can claim it -- first come, first served. O'Connor's lawyers say it's dry land, there is no treasure there, and they don't want people digging up land that belongs to the Estate. Smith's attorneys and their experts insist it's reachable by boat during high tide and qualifies as navigable waters.
The federal court judge presiding over the case heard testimony during the end of December and will issue his decision after both sides submit written arguments this coming March. Until then, the exact spot of the land is being kept secret so other would-be treasure hunters don't swarm the spot seeking their pot of gold.
If you find yourself in the position of responsibility to administer someone's will, estate or trust, you would be wise not to hire the first probate or estate planning attorney you come across. While simple estate without many assets can sometimes be relatively easy to administer, any time there is substantial property or any creditor issues, estate executors and trustees would be better served having a probate attorney experienced in a wide range of legal issues (including commercial and breach of contract claims, real estate, and sometimes even personal injury) to handle all creditor problems that may arise.
You never know who is going to stake a claim at your family's fortune (whether it is big or small), so be ready. Probate proceedings are matters of public record, so crazy claims do surface sometimes.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+