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Lincoln artifacts at heart of family estate dispute

A remarkable lawsuit with a Florida connection is currently pitting two branches of a family against each other in a dispute over 150-year-old letters from Abraham Lincoln and other valuable artifacts. While the particulars are unusual, the case represents some of the complexities that can come up with many people's estates long after a person passes away.

The case involves the great-great-grandchildren of Gideon Welles, who served as Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War. When Welles' grandson's widow died in 1955, she had a large number of historical artifacts in her estate. Among them were 713 letters from Lincoln to Welles. When an article about the letters was published in 2004, historians and collectors were ecstatic, hoping that the material would shed new light on events during the Civil War. However, the letters have apparently disappeared.

The legal dispute has been brewing for generations in the family. One branch of the family accuses the other of selling off some of these items, including a rifle that was reportedly fired by Lincoln himself, and keeping the proceeds. That branch claims that this sale was in violation of an oral agreement that the family would keep the artifacts in a trust. A member of the other branch claims that the letters were stolen from his car when he was moving across country from his home in Florida.

No one wants a generations-long legal dispute to be one's legacy to a family. Careful estate planning and estate administration requires making one's intentions very clear and creating legally binding documents to see that those intentions are met. Few Florida residents can boast historically important artifacts in their estates, but many people have a favorite possession or asset that could be the source of conflict in the future. It's important to establish a plan that will make the ownership of these assets and possessions clear so that one's legacy will be cherished, and not the source of a legal dispute.

Source: Hartford Courant, "Lincoln Artifacts At Center Of Civil Case," David Altimari, Oct. 7, 2013

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