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Lee Marvin's widow and daughter battle over his wishes

Lee Marvin, star of such films as Cat Ballou and The Dirty Dozen, died more than 20 years ago.  So why is his family fighting in court now?  Not only are they fighting, but his wife is trying to evict their daughter from her home.Lee Marvin 

The Tucson Citizen recently reported in this article that Lee's daughter, Wendy King, has been living with her family in the house for 25 years.  This house, however, is owned by Lee Marvin's trust.  Lee's widow, Pamela -- Wendy's own mother -- is the trustee of that trust, so she gets to decide what to do with the trust's property, including Wendy's home. 

Wendy disagrees and believes her mother is not acting in good faith.  She says that Pamela wants to evict her because she doesn't like Wendy's husband.  Pamela says that isn't true, although she clearly doesn't like him.  Of course, she believes she has good reason not to.  He pled guilty a couple years ago to a charge related to child molestation, and Pamela believes her daughter is a battered spouse. 

But her belief is only of secondary importance.  The first question to answer is whether Lee Marvin made a verbal gift of the home to his daughter.  Wendy says his wishes were clear.  Pamela counters that he didn't document these supposed wishes in his will, trust, or the deed to the house, so they don't count. 

Rather, Pamela's attorneys argue that the trust controls, and she is the trustee.  By law, a trustee gets to decide what to do with the property as long as she fulfills her fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, which includes treating them fairly.  In this case, the beneficiaries are Wendy (19%) and Pamela (81%).

A judge will decide the matter after a trial, which is currently scheduled for January 20th.  The difficulty with Wendy's case is that verbal gifts, especially involving real estate, usually don't work.  But, if her mother is truly acting in bad faith and not fulfilling her legal duties, the judge may prevent her from selling Wendy's home.  For example, does the trust have lots of other property so that there is no need to sell this one?  Or is there a valid purpose to evicting Wendy and selling the house? 

If Wendy wins on these points, it won't mean that she will get to keep the house forever, but at least she may be able to keep from being evicted.

The morals here:  never rely on verbal gifts and remember that trust beneficiaries have rights, too.  Trustees have to follow the terms of the trust and do so fair and justly for all the beneficiaries.  But they don't have to honor verbal gifts, except in rare circumstances.  We'll see what comes up at trial about the specific circumstances of this case. 

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 @

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