American icon John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer Prize, having authored such classics as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, died at age 66 in 1968. Even a mind as creative as his likely couldn't have envisioned a fight over his property continuing to rage more than 40 years after he died.
When he died, much of his estate passed to his third wife, Elaine (whom he married in 1950). He did not specifically include the literary rights to his works, so they passed under the residual clause in Steinbeck's will, to Elaine. Elaine, in turn, died in 2003. She left those rights and other property to her family members, excluding Steinbeck's children. This included her husband's summer home in upstate New York, which passed to her sister, Jean Boone.
The New York Times recently wrote an interesting article about the lawsuit by the children against Boone and others, which sought to reclaim the house and obtain compensation from Elaine's heirs. Initially, Steinbeck's living son and granddaughter had sued the publisher which owned the publishing rights to his works, trying to reclaim them for his descendants.
That lawsuit was rejected by the United States Supreme Court in May, 2009, after the lower court ruled that the heirs had no case because Steinbeck's widow Elaine had signed an agreement with the publisher to let it keep the literary rights.
Undeterred, Steinbeck's son and granddaughter persisted with a second lawsuit, against Elaine's heirs, claiming that Elaine breached her fiduciary duty to the family when she signed away those rights to the publisher. They also sought to reclaim the house in upstate New York, which has been at least partially preserved as Steinbeck left it when he died. The importance of the house was detailed in the New York Times article.
Sadly for Steinbeck's son and granddaughter, that lawsuit also failed. The judge sided with Elaine's family in 2009. Still the fighting continued, and they appealed that ruling too.
That case is now set with a court date before the Court of Appeals, coming up on October 8th. Thomas Steinbeck, the son, hopes to prove that Elaine breached her fiduciary duty and wrongfully stripped the Steinbeck family of its property.
That claim is a long shot, at best. As with the prior lawsuit and failed appeal, the judges who handle this appeal will likely rule that Steinbeck's will, which left this property to his wife, cuts off any claims that his descendants have. When the widow became the owner of the property, she could do with it what she wanted and likely owed no duty to her husband's children or grandchildren.
That's why estate planning is so important. The wishes of someone who dies, as expressed in his or her will or trust, govern what happens to the person's property, even if it doesn't seem fair. Unless someone signs a will or trust while mentally incompetent, or because of undue influence, estate planning documents are almost always upheld as valid. Once the property passes to the beneficiaries under the will or trust, that normally ends the question of who gets what.
It's extremely unusual for a family fight to drag on this long after the will was already probated. But, so far, Steinbeck's will has been upheld, much to the dismay of his descendants.
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 Facebook and Google+.