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Family fights for woman's $300 million estate

Twenty relatives of a late wealthy copper heiress have challenged the woman's will, arguing that she lacked the mental capacity to leave a valid will. The woman died in 2011 at the age of 104, leaving behind a fortune worth about $300 million. She left a will that appeared to meet the formal requirements. The problem, the relatives say, is that she left behind two wills, executed just six weeks apart in 2005. In the first will, she left most of her fortune to her relatives. In the second will, she cut them out, lambasted them for never visiting her, and instead gave her money to set up a foundation for the arts. She also gave large amounts of money to her doctor, her accountant, her lawyer and a hospital.

Florida probate courts look at a valid will as a legally binding statement of how the person's assets should be distributed. However, there are cases in which all the formal requirements of a will appear to have been met, but relatives or other interested parties suspect that the person was manipulated by another or simply lacked the mental capacity to write a will at the time it was executed. In these cases, the relatives will argue that the will should be declared invalid. These relatives may challenge the will in a legal action called a will contest.

In some cases, will contests focus on accusations of undue influence. In these cases, the challengers argue that someone manipulated or coerced the person leaving the will. In some cases, challengers may support this argument with evidence showing that a will left money to the people who signed as witnesses, or to the lawyer who helped execute the will.

One of the goals when writing a will should be to minimize the possibility of any confusion. Florida residents write a will because they want to leave a legacy for their families, friends or favorite charities. Most individuals do not want to leave a legal battle behind when they pass away. Experienced probate legal professionals can help individuals with their estate planning issues and make sure their wishes are clearly identified.

Source: New York Times, "The Two Wills of the Heiress Huguette Clark," Anemona Hartocollis, Sept. 13, 2013

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