April 2009 Archives

April 21, 2009

Sad Day in Dogtown: Dogs Get $1 Million; Charities Get $136 Million

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Animal rights advocates were thrilled last year when real estate mogul Leona Helmsley's will left the bulk of her fortune to a charity, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, whose mission statement was to make expenditures for "purposes related to the provision of care for dogs."

But a New York judge ruled in February that the trustees for the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust had the sole authority to decide which charities should benefit from her estate.

And today they've announced 53 charitable grants, the bulk of which went to New York City hospitals and medical research centers. $1 million was divided equally among 10 animal rights charities, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and several groups that train guide dogs for the blind.

For more information about providing for your pet after you die, including sample will provisions and a sample contract for vet services, see Every Dog's Legal Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo).

April 17, 2009

Nasty Will Fight Over Last Minute Gifts to Mistress

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Us estate planners often hear from unhappy beneficiaries after there's been a death -- especially when they are surprised by last minute changes that give large assets to people other than themselves. Here's one for the record books.

A nasty will fight in Georgia is on its way to that state's Supreme Court for the second time. Deceased millionaire Harvey Strother made a will in 1988 that left the bulk of his fortune to his wife and children. But in 2000 and 2003 he made changes to the will that left choice pieces of real estate to his mistress, Anne Melican.

One amendment gave Melican, his mistress of seven years, a monthly allowance of $7,900, and a second gave her a Marco Island, FL, condominium and health insurance. A third gave her a condo in Cape Cod, MA, a Florida boat slip and a Florida property for her son.

Strother's family, represented by former Governor Roy Barnes, argues that Strother was incapacitated by alcohol at the end of his life and that he was conned into making the gifts. At the trial, a friend testified that when he saw Strother in December 2003 -- shortly after he made the final changes to his will -- he was drunk, wearing a diaper, and filling a 16-ounce plastic cup from a box of wine.

The Melican side argues that "no one could control Strother, not even his closest relatives."

Both sides are appealing a jury verdict that found for Melican on two of the gifts and for the Strother family on the other.

Let this be a  cautionary tale to all of us: Do what you want with your last will and testatment. But if you're going to surprise your family, work with your attorney to do it properly (and don't run around town with boxes of wine).

For information and guidance on creating or changing your will, see Estate Planning Basics, by Denis Clifford (Nolo).

April 17, 2009

Proposed Estate Tax Break for the Very Rich

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Leave it to the U.S. Senate. At a time when most of us are worried about keeping a roof over our heads and paying the essential bills, here comes a proposal from two Senators to -- get this -- lower the estate tax for couples with more than $10 million dollars!

In a move that will benefit the top .2% of U.S. taxpayers, Senators Kyl (R-AZ) and Lincoln (D-AK) are proposing to raise the current estate tax exemption from $3.5 million per person ($7 million per couple) to $5 million per person ($10 million per couple) and to lower the maximum tax rate from 45% to 35%. Estimated to cost the U.S. Treasury as much as $250 billion over the next 10 years, this move is also likely to reduce the amount of planned giving by the very wealthy since such giving is often done, in part, to reduce the estate tax burden in wealthy families.

The Obama Administration has proposed instead to freeze the estate tax exemption at its current level when the Bush Administration tax bill expires in 2011.

To learn more about estate taxes, see Nolo's article Estate Tax: Will Your Estate Have to Pay?.