March 6, 2012
The lives of socialite Brooke Astor and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia may have had little in common, but what happened after both of their deaths is unfortunately similar. A look at the disastrous probate wars that engulfed them – and other celebrities – carries important lessons for all of us.
A lifestyle of generous spending accompanies fame and fortune, and such vast wealth may seem far removed from the retirement planning that is the everyday challenge for advisors and their clients. In death, however, those riches often become the subject of divisive and contentious struggles, the result of poor estate planning – a problem any of us can face.
Russell Fishkind, a New York-based estate attorney, has documented the most spectacular such disasters in his recently published book, Probate Wars of the Rich and Famous, which is available via the link above.
Fishkind offers a number of lessons, but first let’s look at how some ill-conceived and poorly executed estate plans led to legal battle among the descendants, executors and would-be beneficiaries of the rich and famous.
John Jacob Astor was perhaps the nation’s first multi-millionaire, turning a fur trading business into a real estate empire in the early 19th century. In 1953, his fifth-generation descendant, Vincent Astor, whose father had perished on the Titanic, married Brooke Astor. It was her third marriage, and she had one son, Anthony Marshall, from her first marriage. Anthony later married and had a son, Phillip.
Vincent Astor died in 1959, leaving Brooke as the sole inheritor of the Astor fortune. During her lifetime, she donated approximately $200 million to various charities, but she had $100 million remaining when she died in 2007 at the age of 105.
In the last years of her life, Phillip charged that she was the subject of elder abuse by his father, Anthony. Anthony was also accused of financial self-dealing and other improprieties. In 2009, the then 85-year old Anthony was convicted on multiple counts of fraud and larceny and sentenced to one-to-three years in prison.
Brooke Astor executed a will in 2002 that, according to Fishkind, was tax-efficient and reflected her desire to donate the majority of her wealth to charities ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the New York Public Library. She amended it, however, with three codicils executed within months of each other. The first two drastically reduced the charitable donations and placed much of Astor’s wealth under Anthony’s control. The purpose of the third codicil was unclear, but Fishkind speculated that Anthony had a nefarious role in its execution. Anyone objecting to the will would have to contest the codicils in reverse chronological order and would likely spend years in court overturning the third codicil, leaving Anthony to enjoy the benefits of the first and second codicils.
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