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Did Ryan O'Neal Steal Painting From Farrah Fawcett's Estate?

Seventies beauty icon Farrah Fawcett died in June of 2009 at the age of 62, following a terrible battle with cancer.  She did the proper estate planning, complete with a will and a trust.   [You can read the trust here].  So why are there not one, but two lawsuits over one of her assets?   Farrah Fawcett 2

It all comes down to a famous Andy Warhol painting of Fawcett.  Warhol painted two silkscreen paintings of Fawcett and reportedly gave them both to her as presents.  [You can see one of the two paintings here].

Fawcett’s trust provides that her art collection passed to the University of Texas, her alma mater.  The University received one of the two Warhol paintings, but not the other.  So where is it?

In the possession of Fawcett’s  former on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal … and he doesn’t even dispute that he has it.  So the University of Texas sued O’Neal, claiming the painting belonged to Fawcett when she died and should now belong to it.

O’Neal denies it.  He says he was friends with Warhol even before Fawcett, and Warhol gave him the painting.  He’s so incensed about the lawsuit that he started one of his own … against a man named Craig Nevius.

Nevius is a Hollywood producer.  At one time, he was working with Fawcett to develop a TV documentary about her struggle with caner.  He and O’Neal already sued each other before, about the Fawcett documentary, and each claimed the other exploited Fawcett as she was dying with cancer.  Nevius gave up the lawsuit because, he said, he couldn’t afford to fight O’Neal.  It’s clear to say the two men do not like each other.

That’s why, O’Neal says, Nevius told lies about him and the painting.  O’Neal sued Nevius for defamation, blaming him for causing the University to sue O’Neal. O’Neal claims that Nevius falsely said O’Neal stole the painting, when O’Neal says the truth is that he owned it all along.

So far, O’Neal is winning the lawsuit.  Last week, a Los Angeles judge refused Nevius’ request to dismiss the case.  She pointed out that Nevius denies having told anyone that O’Neal stole the painting, but apparently he had sent an email to the University saying that O’Neal’s ownership of the painting was a “fraud” and a “theft.”  The Judge was clearly bothered by Nevius’ inconsistent statements.

Nevius’ attorney vows to appeal the Judge’s ruling.  He says that Fawcett always had two Warhol paintings hanging in her house, repeatedly told people she owned them, and O’Neal took possession of the painting after Fawcett died, despite not being a beneficiary of Fawcett’s will or trust.  Nevius feels the truth will come out, likely in the University of Texas lawsuit, and Nevius will be vindicated.

So it really all comes down to one question:  Did Fawcett own that painting, or did O’Neal?  It shouldn’t be that hard to determine, because a painting with substantial value like this one (which a BBC article claimed was worth in the neighborhood of $30 million) should have been insured while Fawcett was alive. If so, there would be records of whether Fawcett or O’Neal was the one to insure the painting.

Even if it was not insured, there would presumably be pictures or other evidence to establish whose house it really was hanging in.  Fawcett and O’Neal separated, according to most reports, in 1997 (although O’Neal said they remained close thereafter).  Regardless of the nature of their relationship, determining whose house the painting really hung in can’t be that big of a mystery, can it?

We’ll find out.  And in the meantime, there is a lesson which all families can learn from this celebrity estate.  Items of personal property with significant monetary value should be specifically mentioned in a will or trust, or in a separate written document that is mentioned in the will or trust, so there is no confusion over who owns what, and who receives what.  While it is not necessary to list out every item of personal property, something of unusual value should be listed out in accordance with a complete estate plan.

It’s a sad reality that many families fight over personal property, usually accompanied by claims of “Mom gave it to me” or “Dad said I could have it.” These can turn into ugly and expensive lawsuits, and often shatter family relationships. Full and complete estate planning is the best way to prevent a fight like this from happening to your family after you pass away.

By Danielle and Andy 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.