Apr 17, 2009

Nasty Will Fight Over Last Minute Gifts to Mistress

demon alcohol.jpg

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).