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January 2009

Why giving up control of your property is never a good idea

Formula One is one of the most popular sports in Europe (after soccer of course).  Bernie Ecclestone is the wealthy head of Formula One, worth about 2.4 billion pounds -- that equals almost 3.5 billion dollars to us.  Ecclestone married his wife, a supermodel named Slavica,  24 years ago.  She is 28 years younger than he is and stands 10 inches taller.Ecclestone pic for blog

Reportedly, Ecclestone loves his wife very much.  They have two grown daughters together; sadly, she left their martial estate recently and announced she is divorcing him. 

There's just one minor -- or not so minor -- problem.  In order to save money on taxes, Ecclestone placed most of the proceeds from his recent sale of 75% of his Formula One holdings into offshore trusts in Slavica's name.  As a non-British citizen, she pays less taxes -- but of course, that means, she controls the trusts and the billions they hold.

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Rat Pack comedian Joey Bishop's estate embroiled in lawsuits

Comedian Joey Bishop was the final member of the Rat Pack to die, passing away on October 17, 2007.  In addition to his friendship with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford, Bishop was known for his frequent television and movie appearances, including the many times he guest hosted The Tonight Show for Johnny Carson.   JBishop

Bishop amassed a multimillion dollar estate before he passed; sadly, that estate is now in legal turmoil.  His live-in girlfriend, Nora Garibotti, and several different lawyers and law firms that handled his estate planning needs during his final years are battling each other in multiple court proceedings.  Garibotti lived with Bishop for more than eight years after his wife passed and says he even asked her to marry him in 2002.   Her lawsuit states that these attorneys used "despicable and fraudulent conduct" to prevent Bishop's true wishes from being effectuated.  (Wait a minute, lawyers using despicable conduct?  Say it isn't so!)  You can read her lawsuit here.

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Peter Falk case update: The fight is on!

As I discussed in a previous post about Peter Falk's daughter filing for guardianship / conservatorship over him, due to his Alzheimer's disease, guardianship and conservatorship cases involving second-marri age situations always have the potential for conflict.  In my metro-Detroit probate litigation practice, I see fighting between the current spouse and adult children from a prior marriage all the time in these types of probate cases.  That's why I wrote in my earlier post that Peter Falk's case could lead to trouble.Peter Falk 3 

Unfortunately for the Falk family, I was correct.  As the Associated Press reported in this recent article, Peter Falk's wife of 32 years, Shera Falk, hired an attorney and contested the conservatorship filing by Peter's daughter, Catherine Falk.  Shera claims that Peter already made arrangements for her to care for him, and he gets round-the-clock nursing care.  Catherine in turn alleges that Shera has prevented her from seeing her father since last Father's Day. 


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Whitney Houston trying to settle life insurance lawsuit filed by her stepmother

Some of the more interesting probate family feuds involve life insurance.  Think that rich celebrities don't get involved in court fights like this?  Think again!

Whitney Houston's father died in February 2003.  Whitney HoustonHe had a one million dollar life insurance policy for which she was the beneficiary.  Almost six years after he died, Whitney's stepmother, Barbara Houston, sued Whitney claiming that the life insurance money was actually for her benefit. 

Her attorney alleges that Whitney had agreed with her father that the money would be used to pay off a mortgage that Whitney held over John and Barbara Houston’s home.  Apparently, Whitney lent her father $723,000 in 1990 and this loan was secured by a mortgage against his house, payable to Whitney.  Barbara’s lawsuit claims that the life insurance was purchased to pay off this mortgage, and the remaining balance was to be turned over to Barbara.

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Probate family feuds: What happens when the family doesn't get along?

Dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or another condition causing loss of competence is difficult enough. The problem becomes even more troublesome when the condition acts as a spark to ignite family conflict. Sibling rivalries, second marriages, the refusal to accept reduced competency, and simple greed are but some of the situations that add fuel to the fire and foster dramatic family feuds. Often the fire grows so great that families become torn in half, spending months – or even years – battling in probate court. Sadly, many families are never able to repair the damage, emotionally or financially.CFPL logo

No one wants to end up in probate court fighting in a public family squabble. What can be done to avoid it? Sometimes nothing. If someone else is determined to steal from, cheat, take advantage of, or improperly care for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, you may have no choice but to go to court. Other times, however, messy and expensive probate court battles can be prevented, or at least minimized. How? Two ways: Know when to call an experienced probate litigation attorney, and know your legal rights.

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An Estate's Unusual Creditor Claim: The Fight for Buried Treasure

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.

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Michigan Court tells Gipp relatives they can't "Win one for the Gipper."

As a Michigan probate litigation attorney, I have been involved in my share of strange cases (like one involving funeral home imposters stealing a body from a hospital morgue).  This one is right up there.  In October 2007, family members gave permission for the body of the famed Notre Dame football player George Gipp ("the Gipper") to be dug up for DNA testing to determine if he had unacknowledged heirs.  George GippSpecifically, Bette Bright Weeks was born 5 days after Gipp died and Gipp's family members granted permission to determine if Weeks' daughters were actually Gipp's granddaughters.

Gipp died in 1920 at age 25, from pneumonia and strep throat.  His Coach, Knute Rockne, used his death in a famous locker room speech, and the "win one for the Gipper" phrase gained widespread popularity when used by Ronald Reagan (who had played Gipp in a movie) in his presidential campaign. 

Two distant cousins of George Gipp, Karl and Ronald Gipp, filed the lawsuit hoping to win back some dignity for Gipp, they claimed, because they were apparently aghast at the way the body was dug up.  They claim it was done with a backhoe, not shovels, and the resulting carelessness was destructive and even dug up Gipp's sister (buried next to his body) by mistake.  They were especially bothered by the fact that ESPN was invited to film the whole thing -- with eight film cameras, they claim.

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