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Helping You Navigate Complex Legal Issues

Dispute over portrait highlights important estate planning issues

Gregory A. Lang

Unlike criminal trials, personal injury lawsuits or even divorces, inheritance disputes seldom make national headlines. However, every so often a very interesting inheritance dispute -- typically involving the rich and famous -- surfaces that has news outlets here in the U.S. and around the world paying very close attention.

To illustrate, consider the recent coverage dedicated to the three-week trial over the estate of television and movie actress Farrah Fawcett who died of cancer back in 2009.

For those unfamiliar with this legal battle, Fawcett's longtime partner, actor Ryan O'Neal, was sued by the University of Texas in 2011 over the possession of an Andy Warhol portrait of Fawcett commissioned in the 1970s.

Shortly after Fawcett's death and prior to the filing of the lawsuit, O'Neal removed the painting from his late partner's home, claiming that he was the rightful owner and had been given express permission to take possession of it upon her demise.

This did not sit well with the university, which proceeded to file the aforementioned lawsuit against O'Neal to recover the Warhol portrait, which was one of two copies. (UT already had possession of the first.)

At trial, UT argued that it was the legal owner of the Warhol portrait as Fawcett's revocable living trust dictated that all of her artwork should be left to the university.

For his part, O'Neal countered by putting several witnesses on the stand -- friends of Fawcett, her caretaker, etc. -- to testify that the painting belonged to him. He also took the stand to testify that he was personally presented with the second copy by Warhol himself, as he was the one who facilitated the entire matter.

While UT responded with both insurance documents and museum loan documents signed by Fawcett listing her as the owner of the two portraits, and footage from a reality television show in which she considered selling one of the two portraits (estimated to be worth millions), this evidence failed to persuade the jury, which ruled 9-3 in favor of O'Neal.

While this inheritance dispute certainly made for entertaining news reports, legal experts say it should also serve as something of a reminder to those contemplating passing property -- valuable and/or sentimental -- along via a gift.

Specifically, they advise that those considering going this route should strongly consider transferring (i.e., gifting) the property is such a manner that is consistent with an existing will or trust, and memorializing their intent in writing. This approach, they argue, can help reduce confusion and prolonged legal battles.

To learn more about probate, insurance or comprehensive estate planning, consider contacting an experienced attorney who can answer your questions and help outline your options.

Source: Financial Planning, "Warhol painting mess: Estate planning takeaways," Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Jan. 14, 2013

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