How Not To Leave A Legacy
Deceased talk-show host Larry King’s family is currently embroiled in a multi-million dollar lawsuit over his estate. Not only is the litigation likely to be divisive and expensive, it is being aired publicly. How did this all come about, and could it have been managed in a better way?
Here are the facts as reported in the media. King passed away in January, allegedly having left two wills. The first was written in 2015 and named his seventh and current wife Shawn King as executor. The terms have not yet been disclosed although it is a public document. A second handwritten will (known legally as a holographic will) was subsequently produced by Larry King Jr., King’s eldest son. Dated October 17, 2019, the newer will did not name an executor and also distributes King’s estate exclusively to his five children, leaving nothing to his current wife. King had been married to Shawn for over 20 years but they had started divorce proceedings before King passed away. Currently King Jr. is fighting with Shawn over executorship of the estate.
There are numerous legal questions that arise from this situation. In California as well as in many other states holographic wills are perfectly acceptable legally and don’t even require witness signatures (although in this case there were two). But King & Shawn allegedly also had a pre-nuptual agreement which limited King’s ability to make testamentary gifts (i.e. via a will). Which one will prevail? Then there’s undue influence, the possibility of King Jr. having used his position of trust to get King to create the second will against his true wishes or intent. Even if it is ultimately proven that this was not the case, if the testator (King) is found to have been “not of sound mind” when signing, either will could still be invalidated.
One thing King could have done to have avoided much of the legal chaos would be to have formally changed the original will through an attorney. That would have made his changed intentions much clearer. Another piece of advice: if you’re not planning to leave anything to a close family member – especially a spouse or a child – who would ordinarily expect some inheritance, it’s better to explicitly document the reason in your will (e.g. “I am intentionally not leaving anything to my daughter Jane Doe because…”). That will make it much more difficult for the aggrieved person to overturn the will’s provisions via a lawsuit.
There’s also a way to avoid having all your dirty laundry aired in public, and that’s by putting all your assets into a living trust. Trusts are not only more flexible than wills when it comes to distributing your estate, they are also private. While there’s nothing to stop litigants from arguing their cases in the media in either case, trustees must keep a trust’s provisions confidential.
Given the litigious situation as described in the media, it’s likely that King’s estate will remain in limbo for an extended period of time. Again, if he had used a trust instead of just a will, the process would likely have been cleaner and faster. This is not to suggest that trusts are always the solution to avoiding acrimonious fights. But at the very least you should consult with a professional to help you identify the best way to manage your post-death estate transfers, especially if your family situation or goals are complex.
Not getting married seven times would probably also have helped.