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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Theater fights for share of founder's inheritance

Twin Cities stage show buffs may know that many community theaters rely on contributions beyond ticket sales to keep the curtains open. Following the death of its founder and primary benefactor, one community theater finds itself pursuing trust litigation as a matter of survival.

Gorilla Theater was founded by organic cosmetics entrepreneur Aubrey Harris. The entrepreneur established the theater as a private foundation, which limits its ability to raise funds from grant making organizations. As a result, the theater relied heavily on annual contributions from its founder. According to the complaint filed by the theater, the entrepreneur stated many times that he had made provisions for the theater in his estate plan.

The entrepreneur died last year and, according to the terms of a voting trust, half his interest in the cosmetics company was divided among his two children. Employees of the company, including the trustee of the voting trust, also hold company stock under the terms of the trust agreement.

According to the attorney representing the theater, the acting trustee amended the trust agreement after the entrepreneur's death and cut out any provisions for the theater. The theater's lawsuit questions the validity of the posthumous amendment to the trust agreement and seeks to force the trustee to give the theater its fair share of the inheritance left by its founder.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in support from the trust, but the President of the theater board says that they hope at least to fund a young actor's project that she describes as the founder's biggest legacy.

The trustee asserts that the theater has no interest in the voting trust, and therefore has no legal standing to sue the trust or company officers.

The theater's lawsuit may take some time to resolve. In the meantime, it has cut its production schedule nearly in half and has begun the process of converting into a tax-exempt nonprofit in order to become eligible for grant funding.

Source: The Tampa Bay Times, "Gorilla Theater's lawsuit fights founders' company for cash," John Fleming, Sept. 19, 2012

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