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The sum of all taxes: Tom Clancy's widow wins multimillion-dollar estate tax dispute

For those with high-value estates, proper planning isn't just about allocating the wealth among those you love. It's also about divvying up the tax burden.

Estate taxes were at the center of a drawn-out legal battle between Tom Clancy's heirs. The best-selling author - whose novels have spurred a franchise of well-loved movies, board games and video games - had built an estate worth roughly $86 million at the time of his death in 2013. His will left much of that wealth to his second wife. He also established a trust for the adult children of his first marriage.

Who pays for the $11.8 million tax bill?

A dispute soon erupted between his widow and adult children over responsibility for the $11.8 million tax bill. According to some language in the will, Clancy may have intended to split the estate taxes between both parties. Yet he structured his widow's trust in a way that shielded her share from the tax burden.

The highest court of Maryland recently sided with the widow, determining that her trust was not responsible for any of the estate taxes. The result: Clancy's adult children had to fork over 41 percent of their inheritance to Uncle Sam.

Why it's so important to plan for these issues

The case highlights difficult questions that often come up in high-value estate cases. How can you provide for your children from prior marriages while also being fair to your current spouse? How do you allocate the tax burden? And how can you prevent these costly and emotional court battles?

The answer lies in careful estate planning. As Clancy's case illustrates, whenever your estate plan leaves room for doubt about your intentions, you run the risk of high-stakes disputes - and the end result may be a far cry from what you had in mind.

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