Wills in the News: The Thomas Kinkade Affair

I just read a fascinating story in Forbes, about the battle over the estate of the famous painter Thomas Kinkade.  This is high drama, worthy of a soap opera!  It has a little of everything – a celebrity, lots of money, and an epic fight between the jilted wife and the girlfriend.  Here’s the story, in a nutshell:

At the time of his death, Kinkade was separated from his wife of 30 years, and living with his girlfriend, with whom he had a relationship for the last year and a half of his life.  The wife submitted a will for probate that Kinkade had signed in 2000, leaving an estimated $12.5  million in assets to a living trust that he had set up in 1997.  Most of Kinkade’s remaining assets – including original art works, copyrights, and shares of his retail art business – were reportedly included in the trust already.  (Unlike a will, which is a matter of public record, a living trust is private.)

The girlfriend has challenged the will, and submitted two handwritten documents for probate, claiming that the painter left her over $66 million in assets, including various art works, cash, and a house/studio valued at $7 million.  These documents, if authenticated as Kinkade’s handwriting, could be considered a valid “holographic” will.  The will contest raises a number of estate planning issues, which we can all learn from.  Here are some of the main points:

  • When two different documents meet the legal requirements for a will, the more recent document controls.
  • One of the handwritten documents supposedly left $10 million in life insurance proceeds to the girlfriend.  Unfortunately for her, even a valid will doesn’t control insurance proceeds – they go to the designated beneficiary on the policy.  (This subject deserves a post of its own – coming soon!)
  • You can’t give away something in a will which you don’t own.  Once you transfer ownership of assets to a living trust, it is the trust document that controls them, not your will.  Similarly, in a community property state (like Texas), you can only give away your own share of the community property – not your spouse’s.
  • If you have conflicting or ambiguous documents in your estate plan, your beneficiaries should be prepared to spend a lot of money (and time in court) to sort it all out!

This story shows why it is important to have a clear and consistent estate plan in place.  A knowledgeable estate planning attorney can help you save your family and loved ones a lot of trouble down the road!