(featured image: Anna Nicole Smith in court in 1994
The death of a loved one can take a tragic toll on all involved. However, when an estate dispute opens up around their death, the results can be fractious for all involved.
New research from the University of Queensland suggests that three quarters of all contested wills are changed in some form or another.
These statistics might surprise, but given how lax the majority of Australians are with their Wills, it is probably surprising the number is not higher. The digital revolution has encouraged a large amount criticism from the NSWTG who complain that DIY online Wills are having a large impact on the number of rising estate disputes over the past few years.
Here are some examples of highly publicised, and controversial, will disputes that divided families and the public.
Richard Pratt and Shari-Lea Hitchcock
Richard Pratt was an Australian businessman worth $5 billion by the time of his death in 2009. He was known as the ‘cardboard king’ and was the former club president of the Carlton Football club.
Before his death, Pratt outlined detailed instructions about how his estate should be divided up. However, when his former mistress Shari-Lea Hitchcock, with whom he had a daughter, contested it a year later she was awarded a relatively small settlement of a few million. The final sum paled in comparison to the billions Pratt’s wife and children were awarded.
Hitchcock was not the only mistress to seek compensation. Madison Ashton, a sex worker and former Penthouse Pet, sought an annual allowance and $5 million in trust money for her children.
The court ruled that although Pratt had made a verbal promise, she was not entitled to any portion of the estate.
J. Howard Marshall II and Anna Nicole Smith
In 1994, oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II married celebrity Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith. At the time, Smith was 62 years younger than Marshall. This drew significant media attention.
Marshall died a year after marrying Smith; however, his $1.6 billion estate was left completely to his son Pierce Marshall. Smith received nothing in the will.
Smith proceeded to contest the will against the judge’s rulings that Marshall was of sound mind when he produced the Will. In 2014, after two decades of court battles, a judge dismissed all claims.
At the time the judge made a note of saying, “[Smith’s] legal claims had been going on for almost twenty times the length of her marriage to Marshall.”
Lang Hancock and Gina Rinehart
It took eleven years for Australian billionaire and iron magnate Lang Hancock’s estate to finally be settled. Hancock passed away in 1992.
Rinehart challenged her father’s will to take back $30 million dollars in assets back from Rose Porteus (Hancocks’s maid turned second wife).
Porteus claimed Rinehart had paid off witness to provide false testimonies, whilst Rinehart accused Porteus of deliberately aggravating her father’s death by multiple organ failure.
A private agreement was arranged in 2003. However, Rinehart went on to further troubles negotiating the terms of her children’s trust fund in court.
Howard Hughes and his unverified Will
The enigmatic and reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes, famously left no verified will. The controversy stirred a lot of press.
After going through several records, a handwritten note was uncovered that promised $156 million of Hughes’ estate to a man who owned a small petrol station and had supposedly given the stranded Hughes a ride at some point. Unfortunately for Melvin, the petrol station owner, this document was later rejected.
Numbers of people came forward at the time of Howard Hughes’ death claiming to be illegitimate children. Actress Terry Moore also claimed a secret marriage. Eventually the estate was simply divided amongst Hughes’ cousins and distant relatives.
Not every will dispute involves a large fortune or a suite of outlandish characters. Will disputes are very common in Australia can affect anybody, no matter their age, income or demographic.
On a serious note, it is important to make sure that your Will is updated at all times. A change in relationship status – such as marriage or divorce – will typically nullify your existing Will.
Finding a proper Estate Lawyer is crucial.