More Gary Coleman wills ... and yes, more fighting
June 13, 2010
The craziness surrounding the Gary Coleman estate, a mere two weeks after he passed, continues to grow. We now have not one -- but two -- new wills that recently surfaced.
As The Probate Lawyer Blog recently discussed, Coleman's ex-wife, Shannon Price, produced a new handwritten codicil (meaning a will amendment) that favors her. Dated about one week after the couple married in 2007, the document, in Coleman's handwriting, spelled out that everything should pass to Price.
TMZ has obtained and posted a copy of the handwritten will. One part of it is very interesting:
"I have made this change of free will and and was not coerced in any way. This I have done because of my personal selfishness and weakness and I love her with all of my heart."
Why would Coleman feel the need to spell this out if there was no question of coercion? And what did he mean by "selfishness and weakness"? Did it have anything to do with the fact that Coleman said on television that he was still a virgin even after marrying Price?
As we also mentioned in our last article, a big problem with this 2007 handwritten document is that Utah has a law that makes wills and other estate planning documents, signed prior to the divorce, invalid to the extent they leave assets to former spouses after a divorce.
Don't expect Price to take tackle that problem lying down. Her lawyer already filed to admit the document into probate. They try to get around the pesky law by arguing that Price and Coleman were actually "common-law" husband-and-wife. In other words, even though they weren't officially married, they still considered themselves to be married.
That couldn't work, could it?
Well, in most states (about 40 of them), no, it couldn't. But Utah actually recognizes and permits common-law marriages in some circumstances. The happy couple had to uniformly hold themselves out as married, live together, and share marital rights and obligations. Price's attorney says that she and Coleman did do all of this -- right down to filing joint tax returns and even continuing sexual relations (so there goes that "virgin" part, right?).
But can this argument work when they were divorced so recently (in 2008)?
Actually yes, it might. There is legal precedence in Utah for a married couple who divorces and then is recognized by a court of law as having a valid common-law marriage. But that law hasn't been applied in the context of Utah's probate law that cuts ex-spouses out of prior wills and trusts.
It's still a long hill for Price to climb. She has to prove that they qualify for this law and that the common-law marriage law is intended to be an exception to the probate law about ex-spouses not inheriting. So it will be an interesting legal battle, both factually and legally.
And to complicate matters further, the question of who will be opposing Price is also changing. The current executor is Dion Mial (a former manager of Coleman). But the 1999 will appointing him appears to have been replaced with a 2005 will appointing a female friend and business associate of Coleman, Anna Gray (who reportedly used to run his corporation). Here's the Salt Lake Tribune story about this latest will.
Gray says that she even lived with Coleman, in a separate bedroom, until Price came along in 2007 and gave her the boot.
The attorney representing Gray filed the paperwork on Friday to have her appointed in place of Mial as estate executor.
Price's previous request to the probate court to recognize Price as the executor is scheduled for a hearing on Monday, June 14th. Undoubtedly, Gray and her attorney will be there as well.
So what do Coleman's estranged parents have to say about all this? They are staying out of it, they told the media. In fact, they feel the whole thing is disrespectful to their late son (from whom they embezzled more than a million dollars, according to a judgment Coleman won against them years ago).
Even without Mr. and Mrs. Coleman involved, this case looks to be a long and messy one. After the issues of common-law marriage and the interplay of the two Utah laws are resolved, there still will be the question of whether Coleman's handwritten will codicil was really valid.
The circumstances of it and that funny wording (especially when combined with Price's actions around the time of Coleman's death -- including selling deathbed pictures of him to a British tabloid) certainly raise questions of undue influence.
Undue influence is a legal challenge to a will, trust or other legal document that is based on whether someone, although legally competent, was coerced into signing it, usually by someone they trusted. We include a story in our book, "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!", about a girlfriend who used sex to coerce her elderly boyfriend into leaving her everything (and cutting out his children).
Did Price use sex, or the promise of sex, to influence Coleman?
Certainly, this is an aspect that Gray, Mial, or whomever else opposes Price's claims should examine with their lawyers in depth.
If you have a loved one who signed a new will or trust under questionable circumstances, don't hesitate to talk to an experienced probate litigation attorney about undue influence.
Posted by: Andrew W. Mayoras and Danielle B. Mayoras, co-authors of Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founders 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. Andrew and Danielle are husband and wife attorneys, professional speakers and consultants across the country.Follow us on Google+