Is your estate worth $800,000?

How much is your estate worth to you? I don’t mean how big it would be. I mean, how much is it worth to you to have your estate handled the way you want it to be?

On Friday, we learned that Bartley King’s estate was worth $800,000.

Bartley King died on July 5, 2004. He left behind a son, two daughters, and fifteen grandchildren. Four years before Bartley died, he had executed a new will. This new will named his daughter Folan as the executor and primary beneficiary.

Bartley’s son (Robert), his other daughter (Helen), and nine of his grandchildren filed a lawsuit complaining that the new will and other estate planning steps Bartley took in 2000 were invalid. Their central arguments were that Bartley lacked the mental capacity to change his will and that Folan had taken advantage of Bartley and convinced him to change his will in her favor.

The trial was held in January 2007, and Folan won. The trial judge found no credible evidence that Bartley lacked the capacity to change his estate plan. From the victory, Folan became entitled to receive Bartley’s $1.2 million estate.

But first she had to pay her lawyers.

Folan hadn’t hired just any lawyers. She had hired K&L Gates, a mega law firm with 35 offices and 1800 lawyers scattered around the globe.

A law firm like K&L Gates doesn’t come cheap. Despite the case being rather straightforward (the trial judge said it wasn’t “overly complex”), K&L Gates had a total of 18 attorneys and paralegals on the case.

The final tab for those 18 expensive professionals? $710,321.50

Throw in another $95,868.47 in costs (things like copies, legal research, and travel), and the total came to $806,189.97.

Folan spent over two-thirds of her father’s estate defending a lawsuit from her siblings, nieces, and nephews (and perhaps even her own children — that’s not clear from what I have read).

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. The trial judge originally awarded Folan $574,321.50 in attorneys fees and costs — to be paid by her brother, sister, and other relatives who had sued! This past Friday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the award and asked the trial court to reconsider.

So where is all this leading?

It’s anyone’s guess how the fees will shake out. But it doesn’t really matter what the final bill is for Folan or how much her relatives have to pay.

The tragedy has already happened. All they’re doing now is sorting out how much it will cost and who is going to pay for it.

Anyone who is thinking of treating some children or family members differently than others may be faced with the same difficulties.

There’s no right or wrong way to handle the situation. Any solution is going to be based on family history, personalities, and some judgment calls.

But there is one step you can take that will almost certainly help, creating a living trust.

In Illinois, your spouse and children must generally be given a copy of your will — even if they aren’t named as beneficiaries or are specifically disinherited. And the entire process of executing the will is played out in open court, for everyone to see.

How much you had (or didn’t have). Who got what. Anyone can go find those things out.

A trust, on the other hand, is private. You aren’t required to provide a copy of your trust to your children or anyone else who might be interested in your estate plan. No one will know anything about how your trust works except your trustee and your beneficiaries.

It’s just another one of the advantages of using a living trust over using only a will — the ability to plan your estate in privacy, and hopefully in a way that won’t ruffle anyone’s feathers.

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