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Legacy of Jim 'The Empire Builder' Hill spurs probate litigation

Minnesotans may be interested to learn that the legacy of railroad tycoon and longtime St. Paul resident James "The Empire Builder" Hill was the subject of a recently settled trust dispute. The Empire Builder earned a place in history by founding the Great Northern Railway and constructing rail lines stretching from Duluth to the West Coast.

The lawsuit involved a trustee and the heirs and beneficiaries of Hill's great-grandson. The plaintiffs claimed that a local storeowner had exercised undue influence to take advantage of the great-grandson's incapacity. In addition to a will contest, the probate litigation challenged the validity of trust amendments made by the great-grandson near the end of his life.

The great-grandson's original will had divided his estate among heirs and friends, and made allowances to several different charities. The new will, executed in 2011, cut out all the previous beneficiaries and named the store owner as sole heir. Around the same time, the great-grandson made changes to his trust that gave complete control of trust assets to the store owner.

The plaintiffs asked the court to invalidate the 2011 will and trust amendments, claiming that the great-grandson was in poor health and lacked the capacity to make a new will and amend the trust.

The details of the recent agreement are confidential, but it is estimated the estate was valued at roughly $62 million.

Even though most inheritances are not as grand as the James Hill estate, the case of the railroad fortune emphasizes the importance of staying aware of the influence others may have upon elder loved ones. Minnesotans who suspect that a loved one may be subject to coercion or undue influence will want to be aware of all their legal options for protecting a family member's assets.

Source: The Maui News, "'Fair' resolution a 'final chapter' in Dorcy estate," Brian Perry, April 19, 2012

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