Dian Fossey’s Will

If you’ve seen today’s Google Doodle, then you already know that it’s dedicated to the late gorilla researcher, Dian Fossey. Fossey dedicated her life to the study and protection of mountain gorillas in Rwanda and eventually became as respected in the study of gorillas as Goodall was in chimpanzees. She founded the Digit Fund, now renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, in order to prevent gorilla poaching and wrote Gorillas in the Mist, later adapted into a film with the same name.

At the time of her death in 1985, her estate was already large and growing. Her recent book was optioned, and royalties ballooned to about $4.9 million. Fossey had supposedly drafted a will in 1984 that left the majority of her estate to her charity, then called the Digit Fund, but numerous problems became immediately apparent with it. The first and foremost problem was that was unsigned.

Given Fossey’s history and her life dedicated to preserving mountain gorillas, the bequest may not seem out of character. This is compounded by the fact that funding problems were typical of her work in Africa, and the book and accompanying film were set to fund her anti-poaching efforts indefinitely. The Digit Foundation and 4 other beneficiaries certainly thought it was valid. However, it wasn’t executed with the typical solemnities to make it effective. For that matter, it wasn’t even signed. Even though it was submitted to probate, the only existent will of Fossey’s was simply a draft, and couldn’t be determined to be definitive. After some contests, the will was summarily thrown out.

There is a simple lession to be learned: if you care about what happens after you die, take estate planning seriosly

James Gandolfini’s Will – A Case Study In What Not To Do

On TV he played a ruthless mobster pursued by the Feds. But in real life actor James Gandolfini was a generous soul. Indeed he may even have endeared himself to the IRS as his will is revealed as an example of how not to settle your affairs, according to the experts.

Gandolfini’s will was written in a way that astute estate planners say skipped many options for minimizing his tax bill.

One example: Gandolfini left just under 20 percent of his assets to his wife, with the rest going to his sisters and infant daughter. (He made “other provisions” for his son Michael from a previous marriage, the will says.)

Federal tax laws allow for unlimited tax free transfers to spouses, but taxes are applied to most other bequests in estates over $5.25 million. Gandolfini only took limited advantage of that provision, so close to 80 percent of the assets covered by the will could now be subject to state and federal taxes that together can reach a rate of 55 percent.

More at CNBC.com: Gandolfini’s will a case study on what not to do

Another Rich Guy with No Will – Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes’ Will

Howard Hughes, Jr. (1905976), an aviator, film producer, and manufacturer, died a multibillionaire. Unmarried and childless, Hughes left no clear heir. He had spent his final years as a mentally ill recluse and no one knew his intentions for his fortune. The fierce battle over the Hughes estate became a public spectacle involving dueling handwriting experts and neuropathology. The fight illustrates the difficulty of disproving hoaxes in the days before advanced forensic testing.

Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, to a mining engineer who devised an oil-drill bit that revolutionized the American oil industry. The family became wealthy, but the early death of his parents had a profound effect on Hughes. Always withdrawn, he became a hypochondriac fearful of germs. He ended his education in 1924 to enter the world of business. Not content with inheriting 75% of his father’s tool company fortune, Hughes bought out the other 25% previously dispersed among relatives. The agreements with his relatives were bitterly arrived at and caused a permanent rift. After hiring executives to run his business, Hughes moved to Los Angeles and became a film producer. In 1933, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and it grew into one of the most profitable aircraft production companies in the world. Obsessive-compulsive by nature, Hughes became ever more eccentric as the years passed. Additionally, after sustaining serious injuries in an airplane crash, he became addicted to the painkiller codeine.

Hughes eventually refused to see people other than his closest business executives. Living behind closed curtains, he became best known to the public for his uncut hair and long fingernails. In November 1970, Hughes moved to the Bahamas to avoid taxes. He never returned to the United States. The last six years of his life were those of an itinerant exile, moving from one luxurious hotel to another. In his last years, Hughes refused medical treatment and did not eat properly. He became an emaciated wreck, weighing only ninety-four pounds at the time of his death. He denied his aides the right to tend him, until he finally lapsed into unconsciousness. They then flew him in an air ambulance to Houston, but he was dead of kidney failure by the time the plane landed, on April 5, 1976.

Hughes’ death set off a stampede for his fortune. The assets of Summa Corporation, under which all of his businesses were governed, were valued at more than $2 billion. Probate was opened in Houston, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. No one was certain if Hughes had left a will. George Francom, a personal aide, later testified that Hughes once mentioned he had drawn up a handwritten will. But when Francom asked about its whereabouts, the ever-suspicious Hughes refused to tell him where it was.

Largest unclaimed inheritance in the history of New York

It’s important to have a will

Welcome to the amazing and mysterious story of Roman Blum, the Holocaust survivor who died last year at the age of 97 and left behind a $40 million inheritance to nobody.

Though his backstory is riddled with holes thanks to records being lost amid the chaos of World War II, the New York Times reports that Blum, whose birthdate is even in question, was born in Poland in 1914. There are no records of a wife and child Blum is supposed to have had before the outbreak of the war, but several friends told the Times that they existed and died in the Holocaust. Blum himself fled at the outset of the conflict, from Poland to Russia, where the Russians briefly detained him in prison before releasing him and putting him to work fighting the Nazis.

When the war was over, Blum met another Holocaust survivor, Eva, and married her. Alas, due to one of the more notable monsters of WWII, Eva was rumored to have been rendered sterile:

The Blums struggled to start a family. Mrs. Blum told her friends that she was unable to have children, and the couple spent thousands of dollars on doctors’ visits. According to stories that swirled around the couple, Mrs. Blum had been a subject of the dreaded Dr. Josef Mengele while at Auschwitz, and his experiments had rendered her infertile.

Though there was talk of adoption, Blum and his wife never ended up having children. Eva died in 1992, and Roman 20 years later, having amassed a fortune through Staten Island real estate. Blum also appears to have no living blood relatives in the United States, nor did he have the forethought to make a will, despite the fact that numerous friends told him he should. According to the New York comptroller, Blum’s is now the largest unclaimed inheritance in the history of the state.

From Gawker: Holocaust Survivor Leaves Largest Unclaimed Inheritance in NY History

The dangers of a Do It Yourself will

From UT: The Dangers of DIY Wills 

Not only can your do-it-yourself will be worth less than the paper it is printed on, it can cost your family far more in taxes and legal fees after your death than you ever would have spent having it properly drafted in the first place. See how one man’s family discovered just how expensive preparing your own will can be.

The Story of Tony Sowder
In 1983, Tony Sowder, a keen businessman, sat down and wrote his own will. He never updated it, nor did he take it to an estate planning attorney to have it properly drafted before he passed away more than a decade later.

While Tony’s intention, according to his wife, Marie, was to leave an estate free of estate taxes, the IRS had a different tax interpretation while processing the estate tax return and reviewing the language used in his will.

Typically a spouse can pass all of his or her assets to a surviving spouse estate tax–free through the use of the unlimited marital deduction. Unfortunately, Tony did not employ the legally correct wording to make use of the unlimited marital deduction.

So what happened?

  • Because of this technicality, the IRS claimed that all of the assets passing to Marie would be subject to estate tax.
  • Tony’s estate had to pay $800,000 in estate taxes and more than $130,000 for the back interest owed on the deficient taxes.
  • Tony’s family went to court to fight the IRS. Although the federal court found in favor of the estate, it took 10 years to resolve the case and determine how much tax the estate really owed.
  • The cost to Tony’s family included not only the legal fees spent defending his will and nearly $1 million in taxes and interest, but also his family’s investment of time and a decade of emotional strain.

Marie L. Sowder, Executrix v. United States, No. CV-02-0136-WFN (E.D. Wash. Nov. 10, 2005)

How can you avoid making a similar mistake?
The moral of Tony Sowder’s story about his self-made will is simple: Don’t draft your own legal documents. Use a qualified estate planning attorney to create not only your will, but also your other important estate planning documents such as a revocable living trust, durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney and living will.

Contact Gift Planning Team at 512-475-9632 or giftplan@www.utexas.edu if you are interested in supporting us through your will. Together, with your estate planning attorney, we can structure a gift that meets your goals.