Local newspapers have reported the settlement in Huguette Clark's $300 million dollar estate. Clark inherited her fortune from her father who made it from Montana copper mines. What can we in Fort Collins, Colorado learn from this settlement?
1. Clark, like James Gandolfini with his $70 million dollar estate, had access to the best lawyers in the world, yet they both chose to use wills. I find this interesting when frequently I speak to local residents with very modest wealth who have been coaxed into trusts by trust salesmen (lawyers) costing more than $3,000 when a simple $300 will would be more than adequate.
2. BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN CHANGING A WILL LATE IN LIFE. When she was 95 years old Clark made a will leaving most of her estate to distant relatives that she had never been close to. 6 weeks later she made another will cutting out those relatives and leaving her estate to those who were caring for her. Upon her death the relatives contested the will that cut them out of the estate alleging that the care givers exerted undue influence on Clark to will her estate to them. The recent settlement announced in local papers this week indicates that the relatives have won the war.
When persons over 70 ask me to change a prior will, to show the long standing estate plan, I usually try to keep the prior will in force and just make minor amendments (the document is called a "codicil"). If there are only minor changes, making a new will instead of a codicil, should not be a problem.
If a major change is sought such as when Clark decided to cut out all her relatives, I suggest enlisting the aid of a mental health professional with expertise in gerontology to examine the person to determine whether there has been undue influence. If there is no evidence of undue influence it is then a great idea to have that put in a written report and to have the will signing recorded with video. During the will signing questions would be asked of the person, probably with the gerontology expert present and assisting to show the lack of undue influence and that the changes came solely from the person making the will. Then after the person's death the new will could be defended with the gerontologist's report and the video recording.
It is not unusual for people to want to reward those who care for them late in life. This can cause problems when the care givers do not include all the immediate family, or if the care givers are not family members. When that occurs special care needs to be given.