One of the world's 200 richest people died October 15, 2008 in New Jersey at the age of 91. Wang Yung-ching was born in Taiwan as the poor son of a tea farmer. His formal education ended at elementary school. He grew up as a child laborer in such poverty that most of us can't even imagine.
From those humble beginnings, he amassed a fortune worth what was believed to be seven billion dollars. Now that his estate has found its way into probate court, that figure reportedly was off by half. That's right, his legacy is now valued at fourteen billion dollars.
How he'd get so rich? The United States government lent him a small sum in 1954. Wang used it to found a plastics company, Formosa Plastics Corp., that produces plastics for countless everyday products all over the world. He was called the "God of Management" in Taiwan.
So, of course, a man with this obvious wealth and business savvy would have hired the best lawyers to create the most sophisticated estate plan ever known, right? Nope. He didn't even have a simple will. But there are several offshore trusts bearing his name.
With most families, it's hard enough probating an estate with a will. When there is no will, the problems increase dramatically. And that's for a simple estate. For a complex estate with many assets, it's even harder. And this one has so many assets, investments, companies and property -- throughout the world -- that it will be a nightmare to sort it all out.
But for the Wang Estate, that's just the beginning of the complications.
Wang left behind a widow and at least nine children. But none of the nine children are born of his widow. Instead, Wang had either two or three (or maybe more) long-term relationships with other women that produced these children (and yes, maybe more children).
So who will control the 14-billion-dollar estate? Who will inherit? Only the recognized widow, or these other two or three women as well? And which of the children will be valid heirs, and what will they get? And does the estate even belong in the New Jersey probate court system -- or should it be transferred to Taiwan?
And did he sign those offshore trusts? And if he did, are they valid, or were they obtained through fraud and undue influence?
These questions are just the beginning. There is no doubt that dozens of additional legal questions -- and probably hundreds -- will arise and be fought over for years before the dust settles.
For example, the Associated Press story about the case reports that if the estate stays in New Jersey, only the widow -- not the other women -- will be recognized and entitled to inherit. But the result may be different if the case gets moved to Taiwan, which allows for "common-law" wives to inherit, too.
So far, the New Jersey judge elected to keep the case, but only to allow more time for the battling heirs and their attorneys to investigate whether Wang had enough of a connection with the state to keep his estate probated in New Jersey. Ultimately, the case may be moved to Taiwan.
What is it with wealthy people named Wang and estate messes? I've written at length about Hong Kong's fascinating will contest case over Nina Wang's Estate. Wang Yung-ching's may shape up to be just as crazy -- and a lot closer to home.
Once again, this reinforces the important lesson. Don't leave your legacy a mess for your children, spouse and other loved ones. See a good estate planning attorney and do the proper planning. It's hard enough for families to address these issues when there is a valid will or trust. Why make it harder on those you love?
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+