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Beneficiaries beware: estate litigation becomes common occurrence

Minnesota beneficiaries may be able to learn lessons from the famous estate disputes of celebrities. Public lawsuits over celebrities' estates have brought light to such issues as self-dealing, proper execution of trusts and misuse of funds.

Some attorneys and judges say that probate litigation is on the rise. Therefore, it is important for Minnesotans to carefully plan their estates to ensure that when they are gone, their assets and property are dispensed according to their wishes.

The most common issue that attorneys see is with people who are in their second or third marriage. In these cases, the estate plan often does not provide for the second or third spouse while also providing for the children from a previous marriage. Two celebrities whose beneficiaries famously found themselves in this situation are Anna Nicole Smith and Jerry Garcia.

Another common situation occurs when one of the parties involved with the estate owner commits fraud. This often happens when a parent or family member is fatally ill and another family member becomes the primary caretaker. The caretaker may then feel an entitlement to a larger share of the estate and therefore take measures to be added to financial accounts because, upon the death of the estate owner, the names on the accounts take precedence over the terms of a will. This was the case in the death of philanthropist Brooke Astor.

Even successfully drafted, ironclad wills may not hold up in certain circumstances, such as those listed above. It is important to note that these are not just issues for families with multi-million dollar estates. These are issues that can affect all families and estates no matter how large or small the value.

If individuals do not properly plan what will happen to their estates when they pass, the likelihood of probate litigation for their beneficiaries and heirs will be much higher. However, consulting with an experienced estate administration attorney can help make the estate planning process much easier.

Source: Reuters, "The big lessons from celebrity estate wars," Amy Feldman, Jan. 26, 2012

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