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At issue: fiduciary duties and the Etta James estate

Minnesotans are known for being very polite and generous people, and not too quick to offend. These admirable traits are just a few things that make living in Minnesota special. However, that these good qualities are the norm may sometimes result in Twin Cities residents' not being particularly comfortable in discussing a loved one's end-of-life wishes. Indeed, many families throughout the country put off important decisions regarding wills, trusts, guardianships, conservatorships and other estate planning matters, and too often the end result is problems with probate.

But one way to help alleviate the possible discomfort of discussing estate administration with family members is to look at the relevant topics through the lens of a celebrity's particular estate plan. For example, the husky-voiced R&B singer Etta James recently passed away at age 72. Before her passing, she endured a number of health problems, including leukemia and dementia. Because of disputes over fiduciary duties, the final year of her life also saw a lot of controversy.

James' husband of 42 years and her son from a previous relationship became embroiled in a dispute over who should have legal authority to make the singer's financial and medical decisions. The son had legally been given that authority in 2008, but James' husband said that she was already suffering from dementia by that time and was thus not competent when she signed the legal documents.

James' husband and son went to court over the matter, and shortly after the singer was said to be in the terminal stage of her illness, the dispute was settled. The settlement named James' husband as her conservator, allowing him to control a total of $350,000 specifically for her medical care.

When questions of guardianship or conservatorship arise, Minnesotans in the Twin Cities area will likely want to seek the advice of a legal professional who is experienced in fiduciary litigation. A person who is named as a fiduciary is a person of trust, and consulting with a fiduciary duty attorney can help ensure that the responsibilities of such a position are fully upheld.

Source: Forbes, "Etta James, Others Remind of Need for Estate Planning," Danielle Mayoras and Andy Mayoras, Jan. 24, 2012

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