"Are Millions Missing? Some Relatives Want To Know. Others Don't."

            One of the premises of this Blog is that estate and trust disputes will become more common over the coming years and decades, in large part due to the graying of America given the large baby boomer generation actively retiring, the fact that people are living longer and many of them will develop dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, and because we are in the midst of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in human history.  Accordingly, there will be increasingly more attention given to this subject. 

 

            A recent example of that is a New York Times article entitled “Are Millions Missing?  Some Relatives Want To Know.  Others Don’t” that features our law firm’s clients, Virginia and Curt Noel, and their years-long struggle to discover the truth surrounding their family’s wealth. We were privileged to represent Virginia and Curt in multiple legal proceedings both in federal court and state court, as they sought to unravel the mysterious and unfortunate events that surrounded the whereabouts of the assets left by Virginia’s mother, Rose McKee, and father, Dr. Bobby McKee, a prominent Jonesboro, Arkansas ophthalmologist and entrepreneur.  

 

            As the article states, between our law firm, our co-counsel, Asa Hutchinson, III, other law firms across the country, and a myriad of other financial experts and other consultants, the Noels have spent over a million dollars pursuing their investigation and litigation through the courts.  Most people are not blessed with the Noels’ resources to pursue such matters for the years which it has taken, but for them it was never about the money but was rather about the truth.  Their quest continues and can be followed at www.misplacedtrust.com

 

            I encourage you to read the New York Times article and then consider whether or not you might have a similar experience with regard to your wealth or your family.  If you are the potential beneficiary of a will or trust it pays to be diligent about your rights and be attentive to other beneficiaries and fiduciaries who may be less than diligent, attentive, or transparent.  If you are an executor or a trustee, this story is a good reminder that you must be attentive to your fiduciary obligations, mindful of the estate planning documents, and cognizant of your duties and obligations under the pertinent law. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House, Downing & Lueken, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

UPDATED: Dispute Erupts Over Wealth Of Deceased Billionaire Shopping Mall Developer

Pretty much anyone who has lived in Central Arkansas over the last few decades has been aware of if not actually visited University Mall in Little Rock's midtown area.  While it used to be the hot spot for shopping many moons ago, in more recent years it became better known for its empty stores and the litigation that resulted from disputes over the mall's management.  The mall closed in 2007, demolition began in 2008, and a brand new mixed-use development appears imminent for the property in the next year or two.  

Anyone familiar with University Mall is also undoubtedly aware of its close proximity to Park Plaza Mall.  Ever since moving to Arkansas back in 1992, I never understood why University was built almost literally next door to Park Plaza (built a few years earlier in 1959), yet another enclosed shopping mall.  But I guess that's why I'm a mere lawyer and the folks who make the big bucks are mall magnates like Melvin Simon

Specifically, University Mall was developed by Melvin Simon & Associates, an Indianapolis-based real estate development and management company which later became known as Simon Property Group.  I mention this because Simon Property Group is evidently the largest public U.S. real estate company, and shopping mall development made the company's namesake---Mr. Simon---a very wealthy man.  He and his brother, who also co-founded the company, eventually purchased the Indiana Pacers franchise of the National Basketball Association. 

According to a recent post on the Florida Probate & Trust Litigation Blog,  the Wall Street Journal writes that a wealth war has begun over the terms of Mr. Simon's will.  Apparently, Mr. Simon's wife was only supposed to receive approximately one-third of his fortune and, after some changes were evidently made to his will a few months before his death, she now stands to receive about one-half.  Considering that his wealth has been estimated at $1-2 billion depending upon the fluctuating stock price of his company, even minor changes in his will could amount to a major redistribution of wealth.  Notably, the changes cut out Mr. Simon's three children from his first marriage.  

At least one of those children is now suing Mrs. Simon, their stepmother, contending that she unduly influenced Mr. Simon and persuaded him to change his will to reduce the children's inheritances.  The lawsuit also alleges that Mr. Simon had dementia and needed assistance signing the document, to which Mrs. Simon has now apparently responded that while he did in fact have Parkinson's Disease and needed help with his signature, he voluntarily signed a new will and trust of his own free will.  This will be a wealth war worth watching in the next few months. 

Seemingly sudden changes to wills and trusts shortly before someone dies are one of the most common disputes arising in estate, trust and probate litigation.  As the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire and ultimately pass away, there will no doubt be millions more similar disputes in the decades to come. 

UPDATE:  The following link contains the latest update (as of 2/11/10) from the Wall Street Journal.