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Family Heirlooms Can Lead to Family Litigation

We often read stories about heirs fighting over a deceased relative’s multimillion-dollar fortune. But some estate disputes arise over seemingly trivial matters. The common thread in many of these disputes is insufficient direction from the deceased person’s estate plan.

A One Hundred Dollar Case

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine had to settle an argument between relatives over the possession of a single item valued at just $100. The deceased was Ada Greenblatt, a Maine realtor with no children, but two surviving siblings and several dozen nieces and nephews. Upon Greenblatt’s death in 2008, her will made several specific gifts and left the remainder of her estate to her siblings in equal shares. If any sibling died before her, that share would be divided among his or her children.

The will did not provide further instructions on how to divide the residuary estate. Instead it was left to the judgment of Greenblatt’s executors-her brother Owen and a nephew, Stephen Singer-to apportion the estate’s real and personal property. As the Maine Supreme Court noted, “Many of the personal property items do not have significant monetary value but have sentimental value to members of the family.” The executors made a list of all personal property items and allowed individual beneficiaries to select items. However, Owen Greenblatt and his only surviving sibling reserved the right to claim certain items for themselves before allowing the other beneficiaries to select. Most of the items were family heirlooms that originally belonged to the parents of Ada and Owen Greenblatt.

In the end, the executors fulfilled the requirements of the will. Each beneficiary received a share of equal monetary value. But one beneficiary, Mark Levine, was still dissatisfied. Levine was Ada Greenblatt’s nephew. He wanted to claim a mizrah-a traditional Jewish wall plaque used to facilitate prayer-but Owen Greenblatt had reserved that item for himself. Levine challenged this action in court.

Both the probate court and the Maine Supreme Court rejected Levine’s challenge. He claimed that the executors abused their authority by preferring some beneficiaries over others in distributing the personal property items. But as the Supreme Court explained, it was reasonable for the beneficiaries to prefer those beneficiaries who were most closely related to the deceased, in this case Ada Greenblatt’s siblings. Furthermore, Owen Greenblatt was unaware of Levine’s interest in the mizrah at the time he made the distribution, so there was no bad faith on his part.

Preventing Petty Arguments

It may seem ridiculous that anyone would go to court over a $100 wall plaque. But sentimental value often trumps economic considerations. If you are making your own estate plan, you can avoid such disputes by making explicit who you wish to receive certain family heirlooms. This need not be done in the text of your will; you might simply attach a list of items for the benefit of your executor. You could also include a clause in your will that clearly states the executor has sole discretion to distribute such items as he or she sees fit.

However you choose to address these issues, it is important you work with an experienced California estate planning attorney who can help you avoid any legal pitfalls. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today if you have any questions.

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