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An Unusual Challenge to an Actress's Will

Imagine that you die after a long series of illnesses. Because you've been successful in your field and leave a considerable estate. You might expect a will challenge - sure. But from your former lawyer?  Now, that's one weird situation.

Close up of a Will

But that's exactly what has happened with the estate of Julie Harris, the renowned actress who died late last summer. Back in 2009, Harris had fired long-time lawyer Herbert Nass, who was potentially the executor of her will.  Several months later, with the assistance of a new lawyer, Harris drew up a new will, one that excluded Nass from being an executor.

Nass is now challenging the will, arguing that Harris "was not of sound mind or memory" when she made the new will and that the new executors used undue influence to get her to sign it.

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Why would Nass care so much about Harris's will? Well, first, plain and simply, his feelings might be hurt. While Harris apparently told him that she was firing him because he had made poor decisions affecting her life, it might be hard to let go. Second, executors typically earn a fee for carrying out their duties; one of the newly appointed executors will apparently get $50,000 for the task.

So what should you do to ensure that your will isn't challenged on grounds like these, especially when you're hale and hearty when you draft your will?

According to Sally Hurme, a lawyer in AARP Education and Outreach, "When changing your will, it's good practice to document that you completely understand what the change means to you and your family, especially if you are making significant changes in your beneficiaries. You can bet that the disappointed former beneficiary is going to argue that you couldn't have meant to leave them out. In other words, you had to have been 'crazy' to change your mind, or someone talked you into it against your real intentions."

Cautions Deborah Gordon, a law professor at Drexel University who specializes in trusts and estates issues, "While compiling evidence of a testator's capacity is crucial, especially when a new will significantly changes the existing disposition, you have to be careful about the evidence you preserve.  Sometimes videotapes and even audiotapes can make a testator appear to be more frail than she is [with the result that the competency challenge is supported rather than refuted]."


Photo credit:   courtneyk/iStockphoto

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