Feb 14, 2010

Tug of War at the Mall

Many years ago I happened to be in Minneapolis on the opening day of Mall of America, the nation's largest. Along with thousands of others, I went to gawk at the indoor roller coaster, skating rink and football-sized food court. Today of course, it's a different story, with many malls are struggling as a result of the economic downturn. We South Florida residents can see the impact of the recession clearly at the Palm Beach Mall, which stands a nearly empty shell.

As malls' fortunes have declined, so has the net worth of the Simon family, 13% owner of Simon Property Group, the mall property owner/operator founded by family patriarch Mel Simon. Just a few months prior to Simon's death in 2009, while in ill health and barely able to hold a pen, he signed a new will substantially increasing his wife's inheritance and decreasing that of his three children from his first marriage. As you might expect, that didn't please the kids, who aren't sold on the validity of their father's will. A full-out legal tug-of-war has ensued. A document filed in court by his eldest child alleges Simon "did not have sufficient capacity to know the extent and value of his property, those who were the natural objects of his bounty (or) their desserts with respect to their treatment."

You may not own malls or millions, but there's a lesson here for all of us. Your estate planning documents speak for you when you cannot, so it is essential that they speak clearly. Establish your estate plan early can discourage potential disgruntled heirs from alleging you didn't understand the ramifications of your actions or were under duress. And consult a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney, who will ensure that your documents are unambigious, and that every "i" is dotted and "t" is crossed. These guidelines are vital for everyone, perhaps more so for those in second marriages or blended families like the Simons, where there is likely to be more discord over the provisions of an estate plan.

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