Sep 19, 2013

Don't let your estate plan turn out like a National Enquirer story!

Families can be torn apart by conflicts over inheritances. Stepfamilies are particularly vulnerable to estate battles, but even blood relatives can be... well, out for blood. In the Pope family,   mother and son have been at each others' throats for nearly two decades.

The name Pope probably rings a bell if you live in South Florida, for it was here that Generoso Pope Jr. ran the National Enquirer tabloid. When Pope died 1988, the paper was sold for in excess of $400 million. That's was ground zero for the estate battle.

As reported in Forbes by Danielle and Andres Mayoras, Pope's estate plan appointed his widow, Lois, as co-trustee of a marital trust. His estate plan provided for the income of the trust to go to her, and for the remainder to be distributed to the couple's four children following her death.

One of the children, Paul, who like his siblings received $20 million upon his father's death, has reportedly been pressuring his mother to give him millions more since his father's death. The tug-of-war between mother and son has led to a series of lawsuits and over-the-top recriminations. In 2006 Lois sued her son for reneging on a a promissory note to her. Paul counter-sued, alleging the trust was being mismanaged in order to generate maximum income for his mother's lavish lifestyle, rather than focusing on growth of the principal which, of course, he and his siblings are to eventually inherit. He has also alleged that not all his father's assets have been placed in the trust and that some assets are being hidden in offshore accounts, among other places. Paul told the New York Post in May of this year: “It is time for the people that were in charge of my father’s disclose all of the assets, not just the ones they reported. I can’t believe the only assets my father had were the company and his home. It just doesn’t add up.”

The conflict became so intense at one point that Lois Pope had her son arrested, claiming he was stalking her. The restraining order said: "Paul Pope's cruel behavior is causing Lois Pope to suffer substantial emotional distress and to genuinely fear for her safety." Not to be outdone, Paul alleged that in an effort to intimidate him, his mother took out kidnapping insurance on his children. She said she purchased the insurance only at Paul's request. 

The saga rises to National Enquirer standards of sensationalism and scandal. Yet as removed as the story seems from most people's lives, it offers some universal truths that anyone structuring his/her estate plan would do well to consider: Regardless of how modest your funds, be wary about putting one family member in charge of another family member's money. Even if a person is the logical choice for trustee and seemingly does everything properly, it is usually a combustible situation. Residual beneficiaries can end up feeling wronged or even worse, suing. So choose your trustees wisely when planning your estate. Taxes and other considerations are important, but avoiding family discord is really job one. An experienced Florida estate planning lawyer will help you thoroughly analyze your family situation and finances, help you maintain objectivity, and recommend choices that are most likely to promote family harmony when you are gone, as well as during your lifetime if you become disabled.

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