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Family owners of theme park in big legal battle

Many Minnesota residents set up their estate plans to try to keep a particular piece of real estate or a business in the family. To achieve this goal, they may set up trusts, conditions in a will or other instruments to direct the behavior of their heirs and beneficiaries. But, as the years go by and generations change, there can sometimes be a failure to interpret a trust, or a dispute over the original intent of the party who made the plan.

In recent years, a family that owns a theme park has been embroiled in a legal dispute over which family members should get to control the business. Now, their state's Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear their case.

The dispute centers on an agreement the Koch family made in 2002, before the death of park president Will Koch. At that time, the park was owned in equal shares by three siblings in the Koch family. A sister sold her share to her brothers and according to one party to the litigation, the brothers agreed that they would buy each other's shares when they died, in order to keep the park in the family. However, after Will Koch died, his widow said that the surviving brother offered her much less for her shares than he had originally said. Since the buying price was not what the widow was expecting, she did not agree sell her shares.

One issue in the case has been the question of whether a widow counts as a family member, in the context of the agreement to keep the park in the family. One judge said in-laws would not be included. The widow noted that the surviving brother still has a majority stake in the business and so even if she doesn't count as family, a family member still controls the business.

Many disputes such as this one can be avoided through the creation of trusts and careful estate planning. However, not all conflicts can be avoided. It's impossible to completely predict the future and how complicated family and business dynamics will play out in future generations. When these conflicts come up for Minnesota residents, it's important to get help understanding all the available legal options.

Source: Westport News, "Court hears dispute over Ind. theme park control," Charles Wilson, August 7, 2013

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