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Bill Cosby Headlines The Top Ten Celebrity Legal Battles Of 2015

What better way to start the new year than by counting down Trial & Heirs Top Ten Celebrity Legal Battles of 2015, complete with lessons?  Bill Cosby

1.    Bill Cosby vs. many woman - Andrea Constad is one of dozens of women who have sued Cosby for defamation, accusing the comedian and actor of lying when he denied sexually abusing them years ago.  In Constad's civil lawsuit, Cosby's deposition was unsealed, revealing that he admitted giving women quaaludes and having intercourse with them.  He says both the drug use and sex were consensual.  Recently, a Pennsylvania district attorney brought charges against Cosby for sexual assault based on the 2004 encounter with Constad.

Lesson:  When victims of assault or other injuries wait too long, they lose the right to sue under the statute of limitations.  The specific length of time varies based on what state the events happened in and what type of claim is brought.  That's why most of the accusers are suing Cosby for defamation, rather than sexual assault.  Even criminal cases have a time limitation on when cases can be brought.  This new criminal case against Cosby was brought not long before the 12-year statute of limitations expired.  Anyone who feels they have a claim to sue, for assault or any other reason, should act promptly and not wait until it is too late.

2.    Madonna vs. Guy Ritchie - The Material Girl isn't happy that their 15-year old son, Rocco Ritchie, wants to move to London to live with Dad, instead of continuing to go on tour with her.  The New York judge presiding over the court case ordered Rocco to return to New York for a custody hearing, so that the issue can be addressed in court before school resumes.  The judge also appointed an attorney to represent Rocco's interests.

Lesson:  When an older child has a preference about whom he or she wants to live with, the child's wishes carry a lot of weight, but the judge ultimately will decide the issue based on the best interests of the child.  Parents in custody battles should take older children's wishes into account when trying to resolve these issues out of court.

3.    Charlie Sheen vs. Brett Rossi - Rossi, who says she was Sheen's fiancee, became the first to sue Sheen alleging that he had intercourse with her without disclosing that he was HIV positive.  She says that she and Sheen reached a settlement at one point, but Sheen allegedly backed out of the deal, instead going public about his diagnosis.  Rossi is expected to be followed by many other sex partners filing claims against Sheen related to his condition.

Lesson:  The legal waters for a lawsuit by someone based on an unwilling HIV exposure are murky when the person exposed has not tested positive for HIV.  Sheen's attorneys will argue there should be no compensation based on a risk of possible HIV development without actual HIV.   With Sheen's celebrity status, wealth, and reportedly-active sexual lifestyle, many women will be watching Rossi's lawsuit, hoping to follow her lead.

4.    Sofia Vergara vs. Nick Loeb - The Modern Family star was sued by her ex-fiancee, who claims that she abused and forced him to sign a form allowing for frozen embryos to be destroyed if the couple chose not to implant them.  Loeb, recently joined in the case by right-to-life groups, says that the embryos should be treated as people and given the right to live.  Vergara wants to live her life without being attached to Loeb and feels that it would be irresponsible to bring the embryos to term because they are no longer together as a couple.  Her lawyers tried to dismiss the lawsuit early on, but their efforts failed -- setting up a potentially emotional and politically-charged trial for sometime in 2016.

Lesson:  No one should ever sign a form without reading and understanding it.  Because potential lives were involved, Loeb should not have signed the form if he did not fully agree to it.  His claim of being forced into by Vergara is a long-shot.

5.    Robin Williams' widow vs. his children - The battle over Robin Williams' Trust was settled after mediation, months of negotiations, and many shots fired back and forth in the media.  Williams' widow, Susan Williams, said she was forced to start a court proceeding when the trustees would not allow her to receive the personal property that Robin wanted her to have.  She also asked for a court ruling to force the trustees to set aside a certain sum of money for her future living expenses.  Williams' children and trustees contended that they followed the terms of the Trust and the lawsuit was not necessary.

Lesson:  Williams' Trust was detailed and well-thought out, which resulted in a less extensive (and expensive) court battle than would have happened if his estate planning wasn't so thoughtful.  The best chances to minimize an estate battle is with proper estate planning.  While no one can guarantee their heirs won't fight, they certainly can help their loved ones by carefully documenting their final wishes.

6.    Donald Sterling vs. Shelly Sterling, the NBA, V. Stiviano and others - Angered by his wife's efforts to have Donald Sterling declared incompetent, allowing her to sell his beloved Clippers, Sterling fought back with lawsuits against her, the NBA, TMZ, and the woman who started the storm by tape-recording him, V. Stiviano.  The lawsuit for invasion of privacy against TMZ and Stivsano was recently dropped, but Sterling's suit continues against his wife, two doctors, and the NBA for conspiring against him to force the sale of the team.  Interestingly, his wife's lawsuit against the former girlfriend was more successful, resulting in a court judgment against Stiviano for the $2.6 million in gifts that Sterling gave away without his wife's consent.

Lesson:  It's never easy taking action against someone elderly who you feel is no longer mentally competent.  Family battles, including lawsuits, are not uncommon.  It's important to work with an experienced elder law attorney if faced with having to take similar action as Donald Sterling's wife.

7.    Bobbi Kristina Brown's Estate vs. Nick Gordon - Shortly before Whitney Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died, her court-appointed attorney filed a lawsuit against Nick Gordon accusing him of causing the injuries that ultimately killed her.  The lawsuit alleges he physically abused her the night she was rendered comatose and stole $11,000 from her bank account while she was in the coma.  Gordon opposes the lawsuit and recently filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case.

Lesson - Whitney Houston made a classic estate planning blunder and left millions to Bobbi Kristina at a young age.  According to the allegations in the lawsuit (which are in dispute), Gordon was after the money and that led to Bobbi Kristina's death.  If that's true, then better estate planning -- to better protect Bobbi Kristina's money -- may have insulated her.

8.    Kaley Cuoco vs. Ryan Sweeting - The female lead of The Big Bang Theory was smart to sign a prenuptial agreement with her tennis-player-husband, but that hasn't stopped him from asking for spousal support in their divorce proceeding.  Sweeting argues that he needs support because injuries have derailed his playing career, but Cuoco wants the prenuptial agreement to be enforced.  Cuoco was tied with Sofia Vergara as the highest-earning TV actress of 2015, bringing in $28.5 million.

Lesson:  A prenuptial agreement is always a good idea for high-earning spouses, when one spouse has more assets than the other, or in the case of any second (plus) marriage.  While it didn't eliminate a divorce battle for Cuoco and Sweeting, it certainly will help minimize the fighting and allow Cuoco to keep more of her Big Bang earnings.

9.    Marvin Gaye's Heirs vs. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams - Gaye's heirs won a $7.4 jury verdict against Thicke and Williams for copyright infringement (later reduced to $5.3 million).  The jury felt that the hit song, Blurred Lines, was too similar to Gaye's Motown hit Got to Give It Up.  Marvin Gaye died without a will, so he did not hand-pick an executor of his estate.  Interestingly, his estate did not participate in the lawsuit, leaving the heirs unable to pursue a claim for the performance royalties.  The heirs' victory would have been even bigger otherwise; lucky for them federal law passed the songwriting royalties to the heirs directly so Gaye's lack of estate planning didn't keep them from pursuing their case.  Thick and Williams have appealed and the jury verdict could be overturned if their appeal succeeds.

Lesson - No one with any level of assets should be without a will.  Gaye's failure to create a will could have cost his heirs, big time.

10.    Gwen Stefani vs. Gavin Rossdale - Without a prenuptial agreement, Rossdale (worth a reported $20 million) sought at least half of Stefani's $120 million fortune.  Stefani accused Rossdale of cheating and being lazy, and Rossdale fought for primary custody and child support for their three young sons.  Not long after the divorce appeared to get ugly, the couple resolved their differences with a settlement that reportedly allowed Stefani to share joint custody and keep more than half of the marital assets, although exact figures were not reported.

Lesson -- It's always smart for parties battling in court -- whether it be for divorce, over an estate, or any other type of monetary dispute -- to settle before the dispute gets out of hand.  This isn't easy when emotions run high in cases like this, but it's better to compromise and walk away than fight to the bitter end.  Experienced lawyers can help steer parties towards resolution and prevent conflicts from turning into all-out war.

Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and attorneys with the Michigan law firm, Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at [email protected]