Monday, March 21, 2016

Killing A Mockingbird

Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died last month at 89. Since her death, her executor first requested, and received, permission to keep her will private resulting in secrecy regarding the value of estate and her beneficiaries. Last week her executor notified the publisher of the mass market (re: less expensive) version of To Kill a Mockingbird that it would no longer allow the publication of that version of Lee's beloved novel.  The least expensive version will now retail for $14.99 or $16.99 compared to the current $8.99, financially harming schools that purchase the book for their students. For the record, the executor of Lee's estate is also her attorney who "discovered" a draft of Go Set a Watchman in Lee's safe deposit box and oversaw its publication last year. Also for the record, Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and spent her last years in a wheelchair mostly deaf and blind with impaired memory. Lee, who had no children nor grandchildren, zealously guarded her privacy and lived frugally even though she earned $3.2 million annually in royalties from Mockingbird.

Many points:

1. Executors can have broad powers to handle a decedent's estate whether those powers are granted in the will or by statute, including the power to run a decedent's business.

2. The compensation of executors is set by statute. In Ohio, executors receive 4% of the first $100K in assets, 3% of the next $300K, and 2% of everything above $400K.

3. Due to the compensation structure, the larger an estate, the larger the compensation for the executor.

4. Increasing the income and size of an estate by increasing the price of books to schools and publishing a book that likely did not merit publishing is not a way to keep the reputation of Harper Lee unsullied.

5. I almost always decline to serve as executor for my clients when asked due to the perception of a conflict of interest.

6. Thankfully Lee's attorney/executor never met JD Salinger or else we would have been subjected to a crappy draft of Catcher in the Rye marketed as a new discovery during the last year of his life.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Krusty the Clown Could Have Prepared Better

As previously mentioned, Sam Simon was the co-creator of The Simpsons.  When he died a year ago, he reportedly left his $100 million estate to various charities.  However, various charities he had supported during his life were initially miffed that they had not received support from his trust during the six months after his death.  Also, the individual taking care of his Cane Corso was squabbling with the Trustee about receiving insufficient funds to care for the dog.  Now, his girlfriend has filed a claim against his estate alleging that Simon had promised her $5 million in his will if she quit her job.  His first wife, Jennifer Tilly, also filed a claim against the estate asking to continue to receive payments from his estate for work he did on The Simpsons and the Drew Carey Show.
Many points, but let's try to keep them  focused:
  1. California recognizes the concept of an oral contact to make a will although it will be difficult for the girlfriend to prove his promise to leave her money.   
  2. Ohio requires that a contract to make a will must be in writing which would likely preclude the girlfriend's claim.
  3. Jennifer Tilly's claim will be determined by the content of both her separation agreement and Simon's severance agreement upon leaving The Simpsons.
  4. In an article published in Vanity Fair mere months before Simon's death, it was reported that Simon was using his last days determining how to give his estate to charity. No mention was made of providing for his girlfriend.
  5. Matt Groening, the other co-creator of The Simpsons, once said that Simon was brilliantly funny although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.  Simon's promises compared to his actual estate plan might have been one last brilliant joke.  Or a bit of unpleasant craziness.      

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Eight Is More Than Enough (Seven Is Too Many)

Reluctantly resorting to advice columns for material.  A woman with 4 children mentioned that her friend with 3 children had asked her to be the guardian of the 3 children.  The first woman declined the possibility of serving as guardian after discussing the 3 additional children with her husband.  The second woman has since ignored her friend.  The first woman sought advice/affirmation for her decision.

Several points:
  1.  Many factors go into the choice of guardian - family relationships, geographic location, religious beliefs, education beliefs, age of the guardians and their children, and parenting philosophies.  
  2.  The current size of the potential guardian's family is also a key consideration.
  3.  The second woman in this story is deluded in thinking that a couple with four children of their own is a good choice to serve as guardian for her three children.  
  4. Seven kids might have worked out for the Von Trapps but then they had to wear recycled drapes as clothes while singing for their supper.  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

That Is Not Amore

Madeline Castellotti was the co-owner of famed NYC pizzeria, John's Pizzeria. Prior to her death in 2004, she changed her will to leave her entire interest in the restaurant to her daughter, Lisa. She allegedly did so because her son, Peter, was going through a divorce and she did not want his estranged wife to receive any interest in the restaurant. Lisa was supposed to transfer half of her inheritance to Peter after the divorce was finalized. When she did not, Peter sued Lisa. An NY appeals court recently ruled that his 3 year old lawsuit may proceed.

Several points:

1. Typically inherited assets are not subject to division in a divorce proceeding. They remain with the person who inherited them unless they are commingled.

2. The mother would have been wise to use a trust to hold assets intended for her son rather than relying on her daughter to transfer the assets to him.

3. The transfer by Lisa to Peter of assets in excess of $1 million prior to 2011 would have resulted in Lisa paying a gift tax. 

4. Ironically, John's Pizzeria only serves entire pizzas and does not serve pizza by the slice.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sharia Estate Planning?

A document purporting to be the will of terrorist Osama Bin Laden was released this week.  The one page handwritten document dates from the late 1990's.  It was part of a cache of documents retrieved from his compound by Navy SEALs. In it, OBL gave 1% of his estate to one of his henchmen, 1% to another, and directed his family to use the rest of the estate to fund jihad.   No word on what happened to his estate at his death or whether he ever updated his will.

Several points:

1.  In Ohio a handwritten will is valid but it has to be witnessed by two individuals.  OBL's will was not witnessed.

2.  A will cannot make a bequest that promotes illegal activity such as jihad.
3.  In some Arab nations (cough, Saudi Arabia), promoting jihad is encouraged, not illegal.  
4.  After the San Bernardino murderers did not leave a will for their daughter and OBL left a will in the form of a letter, perhaps LegalZoom or Nolo can start marketing to the Sharia law set.  Their products cannot be worse than OBL's effort.