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The Ultimate Trust Litigation case

Anyone who's ever been through a court battle over a trust or estate knows how important it is for everyone involved.  But some cases carry more importance than others.  The recently-resolved case of Cobell vs. Salazar has as much importance to our nation as any trust fight has ever had.Native American dancer

Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff in a class action suit against The United States Secretary of the Interior.  The lawsuit involves the rights of Native Americans under Individual Indian trusts that began under laws passed in 1887.  At that time, tribal lands of Native Americans were parceled out by the government and assigned to individuals, in lots between 40 and 160 acres in size. 

But the individual Native Americans weren't allowed to actually own the land.  The government did, leasing the lands for mineral and grazing rights, among other uses, and paying the proceedings into a series of informal trusts.  The United States Secretary of the Interior was charged with administering the trusts for the benefit of the individuals who were assigned to each parcel. 

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A tale of fortune, fraud, ice cream, and murder?

Tom Carvel was the creator of soft serve ice cream and one of the founding fathers of the franchise system in America.  When his ice cream truck suffered a flat tire in New York in 1934, he sold his melting ice cream from a parking lot.  Those humble beginnings led to the first soft-serve ice cream store and eventually grew into the Carvel ice cream chain with 850 locations.  Carvel died in 1990 at age 84, with a fortune conservatively estimated at around $80 million.  The legal fighting started soon thereafter.Tom-carvel  And it hasn't stopped yet.

The battles have passed through federal courts in three states, along with state courts in New York, Florida, Delaware, and even England (not New England ... England!).  Reportedly, legal fees and commissions have already cost the Carvel financial legacy more than $28 million. 

On one side was Pamela Carvel, Tom's niece.  She helped Tom's widow, Agnes, through years of court battles until she passed in 1998 at age 89.  In fact, the pair lived together in London -- trying to escape the heartache caused by years of fighting and seeking some peace for Agnes in her final years.

On the other side were two longtime employees of Tom Carvel -- former secretary Mildred Arcadipane and attorney Robert Davis.  At least, they were fighting until they too passed away in (one in 2002 and the other shortly thereafter). 

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Hearst Family Legal Battle teaches important lessons

CNN and Fortune Magazine recently featured a fascinating article about the legal battle between John Randolph "Bunky" Hearst, Jr., and his ex-wife.  Bunky is one of the grandsons of famed media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who left behind the powerful Hearst Corp. 

William Randolph Hearst died in 1951 with a trust and estate worth about $400 million in today's dollars.  But, more importantly, his trust established a corporate framework that enabled his board of trustees to expand the Hearst holdings into a multi-billion dollar media empire, owning hundreds of magazines, newspapers, television stations, 20% of ESPN,Bunky_barbara_hearst and more.  Here is the wikipedia page about Hearst Corp. that overviews how expansive it is. 

William Randolph Hearst's estate plan is a great example of how trusts can be used to maximize financial legacies and protect your heirs.  While most people don't have to establish complicated boards to manage extensive business holdings like Hearst, everyone can learn a lesson here. 

Livings trusts are the best way to pass along assets (be they vast or limited) because they can be individually tailored to meet the needs of any family.  Do you have modest assets and children who are good with money?  Maybe you want your trust to leave it to them all at once. 

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Farrah Fawcett's Trust provides a good lesson

It's been widely reported across various websites in the last couple days that Farrah Fawcett's will has been revealed and it "shockingly" disinherited her longtime ex-boyfriend Ryan O'Neal (father to her son, Redmond).  These reports are wrong on several levels.Fawcett family

First, the document was her Trust, not her will.  You can read it here, courtesy of Radaronline.com.  This is an important distinction.  Wills are public records and must always be filed in probate to be effective, which allows anyone interested to read them.  Trusts, on the other hand, are private documents, normally kept out of court and the public eye. 

As I wrote in this article this past July, the contents of Fawcett's Trust were leaked by an anonymous "source" then, and now the whole trust document has been revealed.  This is unusual.  Normally that is one of the primary reasons why trusts are used, to keep affairs private (and out of probate court).

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Bo Schembechler's son sues his stepmom over trust

Glenn E. "Bo" Schembechler, Jr., is one of the most respected names in the history of college football.  And, no, I'm not saying that just because I graduated from the University of Michigan (twice).  He built one of the most successful football programs around, and it excelled for decades.Bo_Schembechler

Coach Bo died of heart disease on November 17, 2006, at age 77.  He was survived by his second wife, Kathryn, his son, Glenn III, and two children of his beloved first wife, Millie, whom Bo had adopted (a third adopted son died before him).

From an estate planning perspective, Bo did everything right to avoid a family fight after he passed.  He created a living trust, which was quite detailed and left the income from his assets to his wife, Kathryn, passing from there to his son Glenn III (known as "Shemy"), and then onto his grandchildren and Kathryn's grandchildren. 

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Leona Helmsley charity battle rages on

As I described in this article from February 2009, the trustees of the Leona Helmsley charitable trust asked the probate court in New York for permission to donate primarily to charities that helped people rather than dogs, despite some language in the trust that suggested she wanted her billions to benefits animal charities.  Leona_Helmsley_Trial_and_Heirs

Specifically, the trust had a Mission Statement that included, as its first purpose "the provision of the care for dogs".  But it also gave the trustees discretion to benefit charities as they saw fit.  This is a very important decisions for many charities (not to mention the people or animals they help) because we're talking about several billion dollars. 

This August, several different animal charities, including the Humane Society and American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, launched a legal challenge to the judge's ruling to force the trustees to support animal charities.  Reportedly, the trustees so far have donated very little to help dogs.

There was a big question whether these charities even had proper "standing" to bring this action (meaning whether or not they had the legal ability to challenge the judge's ruling even though they were not named beneficiaries).  So far, their challenge has been allowed to proceed.

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Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! The Video Preview

Curious about how celebrity estate errors can help you protect yourself, your family, and your heirs?  This video introduces our book, Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! by giving an overview of will and trust contests, using the Anna Nicole Smith case as an example.  Anyone who faces a probate fight like this one has to learn their legal rights!



 

Posted by:  Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder 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.  You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.

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