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Relatives in court battle over $300 million estate

When a person dies and leaves a will, a Minnesota probate court must look to that will as the person's final say on how all his or her assets should be distributed. The court looks to make sure all the formal requirements were met in making the will and checks to make sure it holds up in all other respects, and then does as the person wished. However, it sometimes a will appears to meet all the formal requirements, but nonetheless it doesn't fully represent what the deceased family member wanted. When the heirs and beneficiaries suspect that someone has exerted undue influence on the deceased or that the deceased wasn't thinking properly at the time the will was written, it may be time for a will contest.

In a huge case currently making its way through the courts, 20 relatives of a wealthy copper heiress have challenged the woman's will. The woman's fortune was worth about $300 million when she died in 2011 at the age of 104.

The woman did leave behind a will disposing of her estate. The problem, according to her relatives, is that she actually left behind two wills, executed just six weeks apart in 2005. In the first, she left almost all of her fortune to her relatives. In the second, she left them out completely, complained that they never visited her and provided instead for a new foundation for the arts. This second will also gave large amounts to the woman's doctor, her accountant, her lawyer and the hospital where she lived for many years.

The woman's relatives argue that some of them did, in fact, visit her, and the rest were told not to, out of respect for her privacy. They argued that she lacked the mental capacity to write a will, therefore the court should rule it invalid. Additional investigation and uncovering evidence such as medical exams could help the family members prove this point. Contesting the second version of the will could in turn validate the original will and allow the deceased family members to inherit what was originally devised.

These cases can be difficult, emotional and technical, but they can be crucial to making sure that Minnesota families get the inheritance that was supposed to be theirs. Those that suspect undue influence, duress or other questionable actions related to a will formation should investigate it further and seek the guidance of a professional to aid them through this process.

Source: New York Times, "The Two Wills of the Heiress Huguette Clark," Anemona Hartocollis, Sep. 13, 2013

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