One of the best seller authors/screen writers of all time, John Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park and ER fame) died tragically of throat cancer on November 4, 2008 at the age of 66. Some estimate his annual earnings before he passed at $100 million per year. On top of that, two more novels are scheduled for posthumous release as part of a $30 million publishing contract.
Of course you'd expect that Crichton's estate plan included the most thorough and up-to-date legal documents ever created, right? Not quite.
He left behind four ex-wives, a 20-year old daughter, and a wife six-months pregnant, Sherri Alexander. He did what most adults should do; he worked with an estate planning attorney and executed a will and trust. He even had a prenuptial agreement with Alexander that limited what she would receive from his estate. But he made one crucial flaw that may cause his estate to be tied up in probate litigation for years to come.
Crichton's will wasn't updated to plan for his unborn son. California, as with most other states, has laws (called "pretermitted heir" laws) to protect children that are accidentally omitted so that they can still receive a substantial portion of the estate. In this case, the son stands to inherit one-third.
One problem remains. Crichton's will included the following clause:
"I have intentionally made no provision in this will for any of my heirs or relatives who are not herein mentioned or designated, and I hereby generally and specifically disinherit every person claiming to be or who may be determined to be my heir-at-law, except as otherwise mentioned in this will."
In other words, he demonstrated an intent not to allow anyone who wasn't mentioned to inherit. Did he intend this clause to apply to his unborn son? He hadn't updated his will since October, 2007, so his true wishes aren't exactly clear.
His widow has petitioned to be appointed guardian of his son, which would allow her to control any inheritance he receives. Some have pointed out that this may undercut the prenuptial agreement she signed with Crichton, because she would be able to manage any money the son receives. For example, this article in Portfolio.com which publicized this story raises that very point.
But first, her lawyer must convince a California probate judge that this clause in Crichton's will doesn't remove the estate from the accidentally-omitted child law. Because the answer to this legal question may potentially be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, expect years of litigation and appeals.
Of course, only wills are public documents. Trusts are not. It is entirely possible that Crichton already made his wishes known in his living trust. Perhaps the trust will be made public down the road through the court case.
This highlights some of the big benefits of living trusts. They are private, flexible, and can include very detailed instructions to cover any contingency that may arise. Of course, this is only true when they are properly drafted and funded, with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.
I'll watch this case closely to see if Crichton's attorney properly protected his wishes. Given the ambiguity in the will, I suspect not. But again, we'll have to see if the probate proceedings shed light on the trust language and answer the big question.
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+