The Ugliest Inheritance Disputes of the Year

The Ugliest Inheritance Disputes of the Year

by Sherry Ciurczak, December 2009

A death in the family and the legal wrangling that sometimes follows can tear even the closest of families apart. No one is immune from this phenomenon, it happens to ordinary families every day.

But when the estate is substantial and the people involved are famous, family in-fighting can involve dozens of people, hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and can take years to unravel in the court system. So whose family feud made the biggest splash in the papers this year? Well, if you haven't already heard, here is a round up of the top three ugliest inheritance disputes of the year.

Brooke Astor

Ms. Astor, a wealthy New York socialite and major philanthropist, died at the age of 105 in August 2007. She gave away nearly $200 million during her lifetime and reportedly left a personal fortune and trust with a combined value of $198 million. Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, had been the executor of her estate, but in 2006, he was accused by his own son, Phillip Marshall, of mistreating Brooke Astor and improperly managing her affairs. After Ms. Astor's death, a criminal investigation into possible will forgeries ensued, with allegations that Anthony Marshall directed the transfer of funds from causes favored by Brooke Astor into her son's charitable foundation. Marshall was recently indicted on several serious charges, and the case remains in court.

Jay Pritzker

When family patriarch Jay Pritzker died, he left a $15 billion business empire, which included the Hyatt hotel chain. The surviving family, 11 cousins, were to split the fortune. However, some of the cousins wanted to use part of the wealth to invest in the business and distribute the profits based on who made the wisest financial decisions and worked hardest to advance the family enterprises. Others wanted full control of their shares and rejected the proposal that they all contribute a portion for investment and the requirement that they work in the business. When efforts at reaching an agreement failed, it became a legal dispute that continued for more than a year. It was finally settled that the inheritance would be split among the cousins over a 10-year period. In 2006, the cousins were paid approximately $1.3 billion as a part of the settlement.

The Wang Family

There were two major inheritance disputes involving this family. Before she died in April 2007, Ms. Nina Wang was considered the wealthiest woman in Asia, with assets worth $4 billion. She was the wife of Teddy Wang, an industrialist who was kidnapped in 1990 and never found. He was declared dead in 1999, and a court battle ensued, involving three separate wills, between Ms. Wang and Teddy Wang's father. Ms. Wang eventually prevailed. When she died, her fortune was initially thought to be left to charitable causes. However, several other wills surfaced, including one that purportedly left the entire fortune to Ms. Wang's feng shui consultant. The dispute remains unresolved.

Most of us don't have the kind of assets that would take teams of court personnel years to unravel in the event of an inheritance dispute. But it's still a good idea to have a solid will or trust on file to avoid the acrimony and expense of a disputed inheritance.