The legal battle over Gary Colemanís remains has cast a public spotlight on an issue that arises frequently in families after the death of a loved one. It has been nearly three weeks since Colemanís passing, yet his remains are still with a Utah mortuary. On June 16, 2010,
CNN reported that Coleman will be cremated and his ashes will remain locked up until a Utah judge decides who has the legal right to control Colemanís estate.
In light of some of Colemanís comments about how he felt plagued by celebrity, it is unfortunate that the dispute over his remains is being played out in the media. Although Coleman apparently took steps to ensure his wishes would be carried out by executing estate planning documents such as a will and an advance health care directive or living will, the existence of two wills and a codicil brought forward by several different parties means the validity of the documents will have to be decided in court.While financial motives may be driving the battle for Colemanís remains, in most disputes over the final disposition of a loved oneís remains, it is not about money. Rather, it is about the desire for control, religious beliefs, unresolved grief, old grudges, or other strong feelings that motivate a relative or partner of the deceased to fight over his remains. Arguing over whether a family member should be cremated or buried, or what type of funeral services should be arranged, may provide a distraction from dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one. In addition, sometimes the deceased was the person that kept the peace within a family. After the deceased is gone, old family animosities may resurface.
Whatever the reason for disputes over the final disposition of remains of the deceased, these disputes can inflict permanent damage on family relationships. It is not uncommon for siblings to stop speaking to each other when there is a dispute over the handling of a parentís remains. In the case of remarriage, children with stepparents often battle their parentís new spouse for control of their parentís remains.If you anticipate the potential for bitter wrangling over your remains, there are several steps you can take to ensure your last wishes are honored. Provide clear instructions for your final arrangements and appoint an agent to carry out these instructions by executing estate planning documents that are enforceable under your stateís laws. See Memorial Preferences for information on final arrangements such as cremation, burial, funeral services, and organ donation.See Disposition of Remains for information on the types of documents you can use to leave instructions for the disposition of your remains.
The Estate Planning Complications of Subsequent Marriages
One of the most common causes of probate litigation is a dispute among the children from a previous marriage and the new spouse of the deceased in a stepfamily. People who enter into second or subsequent marriages frequently struggle over how to properly provide for their new spouse while still preserving their childrenís inheritance.
If the new spouse happens to be a spendthrift, keeping the childrenís inheritance intact can be difficult, no matter how large the estate. Unfortunately, it appears we have yet another illustration of this with the estate of the legendary actor, Dennis Hopper.Some close to Hopper have alleged this is a case of the stereotypical new younger wife spending down the assets of her elderly husband, to the detriment of his children from a prior marriage. Hopper has three adult children from prior marriages and a young daughter from his fifth and final marriage to Victoria Duffy. Rumors have circulated that Duffy had a penchant for spending money, far in excess of what Hopper could afford. In April of 2010, Access Hollywood reported that Dennis Hopperís assistant and his eldest daughter, Marin, filed court papers alleging Duffy was a threat to his life. While Victoria Duffy disputes this characterization of her marriage, it appears the matter may have to be settled in probate court. As a result, the amount Hopperís beneficiaries inherit may be substantially reduced by legal fees and costs associated with a will contest.Hopper already incurred legal expenses earlier this year when he and Duffy went to court over her right to remain a beneficiary of his life insurance. News reports have also circulated regarding the intentions of Hopperís eldest daughter to try to block Duffy from inheriting from his estate.Itís no secret that estate planning becomes much more complicated when one has a blended family. But it is especially disheartening to learn acclaimed actor spent the final months of his life not only suffering from a terminal illness, but being engaged in the contentious process of trying to obtain a divorce from Duffy, which may have been motivated in part by a desire to prevent his wife from inheriting from his estate.The divorce was not finalized at the time of his death. The first question that comes to mind is what could Hopper have done differently in his estate planning to prevent this? It appears Hopper took several of the recommended steps to protect his estate. According to
TMZ.com, Hopper had a prenuptial agreement with Duffy. The agreement reportedly limits Duffyís inheritance to approximately 25 percent of his estate, plus the proceeds of a $250,000 life insurance policy. In addition, the terms of the prenuptial agreement are said to require that Duffy be married to Hopper and living with him at the time of his death. A prenuptial agreement can be an important step toward preserving oneís estate for the benefit of children from a prior marriage. See blended families.The actor had also reportedly set up a trust which provides for his estate to be divided between his children and Duffy, if the couple are married and living together at the time of his death.Executing a valid will and trust agreement which bequeath a reasonable inheritance to the new spouse is also an essential step for many individuals with children from a prior marriage. While having the recommended pre-marital agreements and estate planning documents in place is extremely important when attempting to control the distribution of your estate, it is also critical these documents contain the legal language necessary to ensure your estate planning objectives are enforced. In the case of the iconic Easy Rider star, his estranged wife was reportedly living on the same property at his death, but not in the same house. Therefore, commentators are now debating whether Duffy will be entitled to receive her inheritance based on her argument that the two were ďliving togetherĒ when he died. It is difficult to speculate about how this issue will play out since the facts about Hopperís estate are still emerging. Nevertheless, it highlights the significance of ensuring your will, living trust, and related estate planning documents contain precise and detailed language. While such legalese can seem mind numbingly boring at the time your estate plan is executed, it can later make all the difference in whether your children or other intended beneficiaries actually receive what you have left for them.In terms of the estate planning complications that can arise in subsequent marriages, Dennis Hopperís marriage may seem like an extreme example. You may not foresee this type of high stakes drama unfolding in your own life. In February of 2010, the Associated Press reported that Hopper had gone to court requesting an emergency restraining order against his wife. Some have estimated the value of Hopperís estate to be in the range of $40 million. Yet shortly before his death, Hopper claimed his estate had dwindled to slightly more than $300,000, in large part due to the financial demands of Duffy. Court documents even alleged she had pilfered valuable works of art from his large collection. However, regardless of the size of the estate, this type of bitter dispute is all too common after the death of a parent that has remarried. To have family members and friends focused on this type of matter after the passing of a loved one is definitely to be avoided whenever possible. Furthermore, most of us do not leave behind an estate that is equipped financially to wage a court battle among the heirs and still have anything left over for the prevailing party. Consult an estate planning attorney and your financial advisor before entering a subsequent marriage or domestic partnership. See also Stepparents Estate Plan.For an update on this case, see Celebrity Estates.
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