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Arturo-GattiArturo Gatti, the former world-champion boxer, died violently while on vacation in Brazil, in 2009.  His wife, Amanda Rodrigues Gatti, was arrested for murder, only to be released after the police ruled the death a suicide.  Now, almost four years later, Brazilian authorities have re-opened the investigation and the case may soon return to court.  

It’s the latest chapter in a long line of legal struggles that started after Arturo Gatti’s death.  Gatti’s mother, brother, and the mother of his first child have always believed that Rodrigues was responsible for his death.  Gatti was found strangled by Rodrigues’ purse strap, and she reportedly was in the room with his body for ten hours without realizing he was dead.

Rodrigues has consistently maintained that Gatti committed suicide.  She points out that autopsies have been done in both Brazil and Montreal — where the couple lived — and both determined that Gatti killed himself.

But that has been only part of the controversy.  The other family members waged a two-year long estate battle, accusing Rodrigues of undue influence as to Gatti’s new will, signed only weeks before his death.  The new will left everything to Rodrigues.  The family couldn’t understand why Gatti create a new will two years into his marriage — one that was marred by fighting and even physical abuse at times — just before he died.

They feel his true wishes were captured in a will and trust from 2007 — just prior to his marriage.  But, no signed copies of those documents were ever located.

The Arturo Gatti estate dispute made it’s way to trial in front of a probate judge in Montreal.  In December of 2011, the Judge ruled in Rodrigues’ favor, finding not only that the will was valid, but also that Gatti signed it voluntarily and free of undue influence.  The estate, originally valued at $3.4 million, passed entirely to Rodrigues.  She says she only cleared two million by the time the probate process was over.

Gatti’s mother and brother said they fought so that Gatti’s fortune would pass to his two children — both the son born to Rodrigues as well as a daughter from a prior relationship. Even though they lost, Gatti’s daughter still receives a college fund and trust account that Gatti had previously created for her (and which passed to her outside of his will).

While the Arturo Gatti estate battle has ended, the family may be back at it again if new criminal proceedings are brought based on Gatti’s death.  Reportedly, a court hearing is scheduled in March to address whether the prosecutor will proceed with the case.

The mother of Gatti’s daughter previously filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Rodrigues in New Jersey.  The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.  It could likely be filed again in either Montreal or Brazil, but whether that comes to pass may depend on whether a criminal case is brought against Rodrigues. Until a final decision is made about that, Rodrigues and the Gatti family will continue to live with the uncertainty of what will happen.

The CBS show, 48 Hours Mystery, aired an extensive piece on the controversy surrounding Gatti’s death, which you can read about here.  It suggests that there is not sufficient evidence of murder and that Gatti most likely committed suicide.

That’s what Rodrigues has been saying all along.  She recently moved back to Montreal, opened a clothing boutique store, and is trying to get on with her life.  She’s even tried to reach out to Gatti’s mother, hoping to repair the fractured family.

But, Gatti’s mother fears to be alone in the same room with Rodrigues.  Clearly, everyone involved will be anxiously awaiting the decision of the prosecutor in Brazil, to see if charges will be brought.

While a story of a famous athlete who died under mysterious circumstances may not relate to most families, there are still estate planning lessons from this controversy that everyone can learn from.  Gatti signed a will and trust before he married Rodrigues, but those documents were never found.  He then waited years after his wedding to create a new will, only weeks before he died.

These circumstances made the difficulties surrounding his estate much worse.  It is critical for anyone who gets married — especially a second marriage — to update their estate planning documents early, and not wait.  If Gatti had created a new will soon after marrying Rodrigues, there would not have been questions about whether she unduly influenced him.

And, all estate planning documents should be stored in a safe place, where people who you trust can find them after you pass away.  Much of the estate battle centered around what happened to Gatti’s prior documents.  Gatti should have made certain that the trustee of his trust and executor named under his will had access to the documents.

By Danielle and Andrew Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs:  Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update.  You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Google+.

For legal help in Michigan, visit Andy and Danielle's law firm's websites, The Center for Elder Law and The Center for Probate Litigation.