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Legal battles of the rich and famous after they die: there are lessons for all of us in these cases!

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Introduction

Disputes over complex estates are very common. We see it all too often with celebrity estates after a person in the public eye has passed away and those left behind rack up huge legal bills battling it out in court for years trying to make a claim on the estate or disputing the validity of a Will. Although our own estates may not resemble that of the rich and famous in terms of how much money is involved, there are lessons to be learned from the legal battles that play out in the media after high-profile celebrities die.

Deceased estates of the rich and famous

The benefits of proper estate planning far outweigh the risks taken by many people who do not take the time to ensure they have the most basic documents in place, such as a Will and an Enduring Power of Attorney. From what we have seen play out in the media, the rich and famous, and their families, are not immune to estate disputes, and despite having significant wealth, even the most high-profile personalities get it wrong by either failing to get proper legal advice from an experienced estate planning lawyer when drafting a Will or dismissing the importance of having a Will altogether.  

One of the most highly publicised estate disputes is legendary guitarist and rock star, Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970 at the age of 27. A legal battle over his $80 million estate took place after he died intestate (without having made a Will).

Another more recent estate dispute involved the enigmatic rock star in Prince. Prince’s estate, which was estimated to be worth $156.4 million, was finally settled in February 2022 after a 6-year legal battle between his siblings and half-siblings.  The legal battle saw tens of millions of dollars spent on lawyers and consultants in order to come to an agreement between all parties on how the estate should be distributed. This dispute was largely because of Prince dying without having written a Will. It is quite astounding that a person with that much wealth and access to the best lawyers and advisors did not bother to make a Will.

Most recently, one of the most high-profile and long-running estate disputes has now also finally been settled, that being the estate of the godfather of soul and hardest working man in show business, James Brown.  

It has been 15 years since his death and only now has the estate finally been settled and administered.

James Brown’s family circumstances were quite complex and shine a light on what can transpire after you die if you have a blended family and complex estate.

James Brown had many heirs including his children, grandchildren and an ex-wife who was ultimately eliminated as an heir after it was revealed that she was still legally married to someone else at the time she married James Brown in 2001!

There were dozens of lawsuits and legal battles that tied up the singer’s publishing rights and desired charitable endeavours.

Finally, in July 2021, all parties involved were able to reach an agreement. The terms of the agreement do however remain confidential.

Lessons to be learnt from high-profile estate disputes

No one is immune to disputes arising between family members and loved ones after they pass away. The main point is to make sure that you obtain proper legal advice from an experienced estate planning lawyer to draft your Will and make sure that this is regularly updated every 3-5 years or if there is a significant event in the family (i.e. a marriage, birth, death, or if someone loses mental capacity). The fact that you have a Will is a huge step in the right direction to avoid disputes. It may not stop all legal battles, but a properly considered Will which makes adequate provision for your family members and loved ones goes a long way to avoiding these messy legal battles.

With the way families are put together today, more people are part of ‘blended families’, are moving onto their second or third marriage or a de facto relationship and may have children to previous relationships in addition to children with their new partner. In these situations, many people own their assets in different ways, they may have brought property and assets into a new relationship and may have also acquired property jointly with their new partner.  The type of assets people own, and how they are owned, can significantly impact someone’s testamentary intentions to pass on that wealth or property to their children in addition to providing for their new partner or spouse in for when they die (remember, it’s not if you die – it is when you die! Unless you are Keith Richards, of course…).

There is a lot to unwrap in these types of situations and people need to consider their unique family circumstances and their estate structure when deciding how to plan for the future and protect the inheritance of children, surviving spouse or spouses, and any other dependents, including estranged or adopted/biological children.

The Brady Bunch Family Scenario

A “Brady Bunch Family” refers to a couple that may have children on both sides of the equation from previous marriages, sometimes they are adult children, sometimes they are minors. Many will recall the very popular TV series of the early 1970’s which featured Mike and Carol Brady, who remarried with 3 children each (3 boys and 3 girls respectively). The issues arising when one parent dies in this scenario are obvious – how do you look after your surviving spouse and look after your children from your previous marriage? A common problem that can arise in relation to estate planning and the Brady Bunch family scenario is when the current couple who are either married or in a de facto relationship, purchase a home together or acquire assets together as their relationship grows. They want to look after each other if one of them dies, and they also want to provide for their respective children from previous relationships. This is where it gets difficult. If one party passes away, they usually want their notional half share of assets they have acquired jointly with that new partner to go to their own children on their side of the family. This may not happen if the surviving partner receives all those jointly owned assets and does not provide for the partner’s children in his or her Will.

Even more complicated is the situation where two people come together who have children from previous relationships, and then have a child together of their own. In this case, the couple generally want to look after their children from previous relationships, and also provide for their new spouse or partner, and at the same time provide for the child of that relationship together as a couple.

It is a real situation where the Will-maker can be torn about what they need to do. It gets really sticky trying to look after your spouse/partner that survives you and also make sure your notional half share of your estate or property goes to who you intend it to, which may be your children from previous relationships.

The main problem that can arise is if everything is jointly owned and one party dies, the surviving spouse or partner inherits a whole of the assets they have accumulated together. In many cases, couples have completed reciprocal Wills which leave everything to each other, with a contingency plan when they both die that everything is then split between the surviving children.

Unfortunately, we see it all too often that in many cases when someone dies who has completed a reciprocal Will, the surviving partner changes their Will and goes on to leave everything to their own children. This ultimately disinherits the stepchildren, and the deceased’s wishes are not realized.

Mitigating the risk of someone challenging your estate

People must be careful about their estate planning and how they both craft and draft their Wills and other estate planning tools, such as binding death benefit superannuation nominations, testamentary trust Wills, and powers of attorney. It is imperative for people to gain an understanding of how an asset pool will be treated if they are in a blended family scenario, when one party dies and who may be eligible to contest the Will.

In Queensland, to contest a Will (or if there is no Will under the rules of intestacy), you must be deemed an eligible person. To be considered an eligible person, someone must fall within one of the following categories as per S40 of the Act:

  • Be the deceased’s spouse (husband, wife, de-facto partner, civil partner and dependent former husband, wife or civil partner
  • Be a child of the deceased (natural, step and adopted)
  • Be a dependent of the deceased including a person who was wholly or substantially maintained or supported by that deceased person at the time of the person’s death who was either:
    (a) a parent of that deceased person; or
    (b) the parent of a surviving child under the age of 18 years of that deceased person; or
    (c) a person under the age of 18 years.


One estate planning strategy that can be used to provide for blended families is to ensure children from previous marriages get the notional half share of their parent’s assets through the use of testamentary trusts and life interests. Couples should consider owning property as tenants in common in equal shares as opposed to owning property as joint tenants. In this instance, whatever is left after one person dies is held on trust by the surviving spouse or partner until they die, and then the half share of the assets reverts to the children after that.

Making sure assets are owned and held in the correct way is the first step to proper estate planning.

If you don’t get this right from the start, then it can be too late for your intended beneficiaries after you are gone. When children are left to challenge the estate, this is where significant legal costs can accrue and all that are involved are left financially and emotionally distraught.  

Attwood Marshall Lawyers – helping people plan for the future and preserve their wishes

With one of the largest and most reputable Wills and Estate Departments in the country, our experienced lawyers ensure that our clients get the right advice from the start. From drafting simple Wills, to setting up complex testamentary trusts, completing binding death benefit superannuation nominations, and utilizing other succession strategies, we provide a holistic approach to estate planning to cater to your unique family dynamics and asset pool. With this approach, we can limit the risk of estate challenges and disputes arising.

Our lawyers are dedicated to helping people plan, preserve, and protect their wishes and working closely with their clients to put the most appropriate plan in place for their personal circumstances. For enquiries related to our estate planning services, please contact Wills and Estates Department Manager, Donna Tolley, on direct line 07 5506 8241, email dtolley@attwoodmarhsall.com.au or book an appointment online by clicking here.

For enquiries related to estate disputes and contesting a Will, please contact our Estate Litigation Department Manager, Amanda Heather, on direct line 07 5506 8245, email aheather@attwoodmarshall.com.au or book an appointment online by clicking here.

You can visit our lawyers at any of our conveniently located offices at Coolangatta, Robina Town Centre, Kingscliff, Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne, or alternatively arrange a phone or Zoom consultation.

Read more:

Dean Jones’ secret son sues over estate

The battle over Bathurst 1000 Legend’s Legacy – Peter Brock`s invalid DIY Will

Contesting a Will by bringing a Family Provision Application

 
 
 

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