Under New York law, there are several recognized grounds to contest a Will, which are as follows: Lack of Due Execution, Lack of Testamentary Capacity, Revocation, Fraud, Undue Influence/Duress, and Forgery. It is important to note that Mistake is not considered valid grounds to contest a Will.  In addition, an individual seeking to contest or object to a Will (an “Objectant”) must have “standing”.  In order to have standing one must be a beneficiary under the propounded Will (a “Legatee”), be a descendant of the decedent (a “Distributee”), or have an affected pecuniary interest; i.e., they would receive less under this propounded Will or would receive a greater share of the decedent’s estate if the propounded Will was deemed invalid and disregarded by the Court.

As many are aware from recent events, celebrity broadcasting legend Larry King passed away on January 23, 2021, giving rise to the most recent celebrity faux pas with respect to estate planning blunders and giving rise to yet another avoidable estate dispute, which can bring with it great time delays and costly litigation between the parties. 

Among the recent celebrity estates that became the center of controversy was that of Robin Williams, who died on August 11, 2014, leaving his estate worth $100 million to his children, and only a life estate to his wife for her to reside in the home during her life, the home also going to his children upon his wife’s subsequent death.  Prince Rogers Nelson (aka Prince) died intestate on April 21, 2016. When an individual dies “intestate” it means he or she died without a Will.  This causes the individual’s estate to be distributed as proscribed under the laws of descent and distribution of one’s state of residence, as opposed to what one’s actual wishes may have been.  Prince’s death without a properly executed Will that detailed his wishes and property distribution resulted in Prince’s heirs, siblings, half-siblings and other claimants disputing and each staking a claim to Prince’s approximate $300 million estate.  Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018. Although it was at first believed that Aretha died intestate, handwritten notes were subsequently discovered that have been presented as Aretha’s purported Last Will & Testament, giving rise to an ongoing dispute of her approximately $60 million estate.  More recently, both Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman died in an untimely fashion and intestate, leaving the distribution of their estates up to their respective states, and forcing their grieving families to pick up the pieces, make sense of their unplanned estates and the financial consequences of liquidation and distributions.

In 2010, Larry King’s net worth was $144 million, but in 2019 it was approximately $2 million.  Larry created a handwritten (“holographic”) amendment to his will dated October 17, 2019 (the “Codicil”), leaving his entire estate to his children in equal shares, and cutting out his estranged wife altogether. This Codicil was made just two months after Larry filed for divorce from his wife, Shawn Southwick King.  However, Shawn King was the named fiduciary under Larry’s prior testamentary instruments, a beneficiary and shareholder, and perhaps a party to a joint family estate plan.  Shawn King has stated that she did not know about Larry’s Codicil and plans to strenuously contest it, alleging, among other things, undue influence.

It is important to note that in New York, filing for divorce is insufficient and one must actually receive a Judgment of Divorce to be officially divorced. Otherwise, one’s soon-to-be ex-spouse is still one’s spouse and is entitled a minimum of one-third of the deceased spouse’s estate as an Elective Share, as a matter of right under New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 5-1.1A. This statute protects a surviving spouse from being completely disinherited from the estate of the deceased spouse.  In addition, under New York law, holographic wills are reserved for members of the military or naval services during times of war or armed conflict or when out to sea, are subject to strict rules, and generally must be properly executed under the formalities of the laws of New York within a specified timeframe or otherwise be rendered invalid.

Whether you have an estate worth $500 or $500 million, it is wise to consult with an experienced Trust & Estates attorney to assist you in creating and putting into a place a proper estate plan. The failure to create an estate plan and provide for your wishes to be carried out may cause unintended distributions, tax consequences and costly and long-lasting disputes between family members.

This summary is not legal advice and does not create any attorney-client relationship.  This summary does not provide a definitive legal opinion for any factual situation. Before the firm can provide legal advice or opinion to any person or entity, the specific facts at issue must be reviewed by the firm.  Before an attorney-client relationship is formed, the firm must have a signed engagement letter with a client setting forth the Firm’s scope and terms of representation.

Ronald A. Fatoullah, Esq. is the founder of Ronald Fatoullah & Associates, a law firm that concentrates in elder law, estate planning, Medicaid planning, guardianships, estate administration, trusts, wills, and real estate. Adam D. Solomon, Esq., is a Trusts & estates attorney with the firm. The law firm can be reached at 718-261-1700, 516-466-4422, or toll free at 1-877-ELDER-LAW or 1-877-ESTATES.  Mr. Fatoullah is also a partner with Brightside Advisors, a wealth management firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles.