Whether they involve celebrities or regular people, the stories generated by this area of the law can be intriguing. Take the case of Billy and Kitty Tipton. Never heard of them? Unless you spent a lot of time in Spokane, Washington during the 1980's, I'm not surprised. Billy Tipton was a jazz musician who died in 1989 when it was revealed, for the first time, that he was actually (drum roll please) a woman! That's right, he -- er, uh -- she had been masquerading as a man throughout her life! Apparently women weren't always allowed to play in certain clubs, so she became a he and launched a jazz music career. She never looked back.
But that didn't stop her from getting married to a woman -- a stripper, no less. Kathleen "Kitty" Tipton Oakes was married to Billy Tipton for 18 years; together, they had three sons. They were adopted, of course.
You may be wondering, how does this relate to "probate litigation"? When Kitty died in 2007, she didn't have a will. Her estate consisted of $300,000 from the sale of the house she kept from her marriage to Billy Tipton. Her three sons, a mysterious woman also claiming to be a child (even though she is only 11 years younger than Kitty), and 30 distant relatives are now battling in probate court over who will inherit.
While there are several legal questions to fight over, the big one is: Can these three sons inherit the estate when the adoptions weren't technically legal? Why not legal? Because they were obtained through fraud -- Billy was not their "father". A judge must decide if they can qualify as heirs under Washington's intestate laws.
The moral of the story: Don't leave your legacy up to chance! If Kitty Tipton had a proper estate plan, with a trust or even a basic will, she could have included or excluded the three sons . . . or anyone else for that matter. Then whether or not the adoptions were legal would not have mattered.
So prepare a will, or better yet, do it the right way and hire an experienced attorney to create a trust for you! You never know what surprises are in store in your future, so be prepared. Stay tuned to this blog to learn the why's, how's, do's and don'ts . . . and to find out what happens in the exciting conclusion to The Twilight Zone's version of My Three Sons.
Update 12/10/08: The judge ruled this week that the three boys could inherit after all! Read all about it here: Tipton widow's estate settled, The Seattle Times, Dec. 9, 2008. Now let's see what happens on appeal (the losing side almost always appeals.)
Posted by: Probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law of Troy, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law, among other areas. You can reach him by phone at 248-641-7070 or email at [email protected].