Dear Clients and Friends,
If you follow celebrity news, you’ve probably heard about the inheritance battle going on between the children of longtime TV talk show host Larry King and his widow, Shawn King. Here’s the case in a nutshell: In 2019, King executed a handwritten will while recuperating from a heart attack. The will purported to replace an estate plan he drew up in 2015, dividing up his $2 million estate between his five children (two of whom predeceased him) while disinheriting his seventh wife Shawn, whom he had been married for more than 22 years. At the time of King’s death (and at the time he executed the will), he was separated from Shawn and had filed for divorce, although he had not taken steps to finalize the split.
While $2 million sounds like a small sum for a TV personality of King’s profile, he is also believed to have left behind between $50 million and $150 million in “non-probate” assets (in other words, assets that are not passed on through a will, like jointly-owned property, retirement accounts with designated beneficiaries, life insurance policies, transfer-on-death accounts and money in trusts). Still, Shawn filed suit challenging the will, arguing that it was executed under questionable circumstances and that the elderly and infirm King was vulnerable to others’ undue influence.
The case offers some useful lessons on how to avoid needless inheritance disputes.
One takeaway is that if you are considering writing a will or changing one, you should consult with us or another attorney. King’s handwritten will is very likely to be accepted by the probate court under the laws of California, where it was created. Two people apparently witnessed the will signing and it was drafted in King’s own hand. But a handwritten will can create suspicion among disappointed heirs and it is more vulnerable to challenge than more formal wills. That makes it important to seek counsel from us or a good lawyer who can help ensure a will is written and executed in a manner that will forestall litigation.
Another takeaway from the case is that only a small percentage of King’s assets appear to be at issue in this dispute. That’s because most of his assets are not subject to probate. This is advantageous for several reasons. First, the disposition of non-probate assets does not become a matter of public record, so curious people can’t go poking around. Additionally, non-probate assets can be transferred to the beneficiary almost immediately rather than being subject to a lengthy legal process. Furthermore, having assets passed along outside of probate can reduce associated costs, like court costs, administrator fees and even attorney fees.
A third thing to note from this case is that King had filed for divorce shortly before drafting his new will. When you file for divorce, it is absolutely critical that you update your will and your beneficiaries to ensure that your property will be passed on the way you want it to be. King should have consulted with an attorney to ensure that that his new will adhered to all the formalities.
Contact us, free of any obligation, to see if we can be of help on any of your estate planning, or other family related legal needs.