Probate litigation is a special field of law that addresses legal issues related to estates, death, conservatorship, guardianship, disability, and aging. Probate litigators are often required when family disputes arise over inheritance property or if heirs contest a decedent’s last Will.
Intestate estates often require probate litigation, especially if estates are highly valuable. Intestate refers to probated estates where decedents died without leaving a Will. Death can bring out the worst in some people and when large sums of money are involved, there are usually a few greedy wolves.
Intestate estates must be settled according to state probate laws. Estate assets typically transfer to a surviving spouse, if one exists, but the estate must undergo the probate process to determine rightful heirs. Relatives can lay claim to estate assets, but must prove they are entitled to the property they seek.
The probate process is prolonged when individuals file inheritance claims. Probate courts must conduct due diligence to determine if claimants are entitled to inheritance property. In some instances, probate can drag on for years as courts determine how to distribute estate assets.
Good examples of how bad things can turn in probate are the celebrity probate litigation cases involving estates of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Anna Nicole Smith.
James Brown, aka, The Godfather of Soul, executed a legal last Will, but did not update it after marrying his fifth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, whom he later had a son with. Hynie contested the Will, while some of Brown’s family filed suit against estate administrators.
Brown’s family also contested the gift of his musical legacy to charity using an irrevocable living trust. The family also disagreed about Brown’s final resting spot. Brown’s estate was held in probate for over three years, costing his estate millions in probate litigation fees. And, there are still lawsuits pending which may take years to settle.
Jimi Hendrix, greatest electric guitarist in rock-n-roll, died without having a Will in place and set off legal battles that continually reignited over the course of 20 years. After Hendrix’s death in 1970, his estate was managed by a probate attorney. In 1990, Hendrix’s father, Al sued for control of Jimi’s estate and won.
Al Hendrix died in 2002 and bequeathed Jimi’s estate to his adopted daughter, Janie. Jimi’s brother, Leon Hendrix sued to gain control of the estate. The trial lasted for several months before a judge awarded estate assets to both heirs.
The most renowned celebrity probate litigation case was that of Anna Nicole Smith and the estate of her late husband, J. Howard Marshall II. Marshall died on August 4, 1995, but litigation continued for over four years before Smith was awarded $475 million in 2000. Court battles ensued as claims and counterclaims were filed by both Smith and Marshall’s son, Pierce Marshall.
Pierce Marshall passed away in 2006 and Anna Nicole Smith passed away in 2007, but their estate representatives are still embroiled in legal battle with the case scheduled to be heard in Supreme Court.
Most people do not have to worry about this type of probate litigation, but crazy things do happen in probate court. As a California probate liquidator, I have heard many horror stories over things going terribly wrong during estate settlement.
Unless estates are protected by a trust, they must endure the probate process. Intestate estates are notorious for dragging on for months and being the crux of major family disputes. This can be avoided by engaging in estate planning strategies. While there is no guarantee that heirs won’t file lawsuits, estate planning can lessen the potential.
At minimum, estate planning should consist of a last will and testament, healthcare proxy, and power of attorney. POA provides legal authority to another person to make decisions on your behalf. Healthcare proxies let you state what type of medical treatment you do or do not want if you become incapacitated and cannot speak for yourself.
The James Brown Estate Battle
The Battle Over the Jimi Hendrix Estate
Anna Nicole Smith’s Probate Case Goes to Supreme Court