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Recipe for confusion and conflict: two different wills

When someone leaves behind two wills, it is obviously a recipe for confusion. And it is scarcely a surprise when an extended and hard-fought legal fight ensues in such circumstances -- especially when large amounts of money are involved.

That is why testators in Massachusetts and across the country are always advised to create a clear estate plan that includes a will. But maintaining clarity about an estate plan in extreme old age is easier said than done.

A recent case involving the heiress of a mining and real-estate fortune is a case in point.

The heiress had no close relatives. For the last two decades of her life, she lived in seclusion at a medical center in Manhattan, even though she owned homes in three different states.

When the heiress was 98, she apparently signed two different wills within a very short period of time. Indeed, the two wills were signed only six weeks apart.

Even before the heiress died at age 104, disagreements about her estate had begun. The heiress had half-siblings, and some of their descendants brought a legal action. The action sought to remove a certain lawyer and a certain accountant from working on her legal and financial affairs.

After the death of the heiress, not one but two wills appeared.  In one will, distant relatives got the bulk of the money. In the second, charitable groups, a care provider and others received generous bequests.

Eventually the New York attorney general's office entered the case on behalf of the charitable groups. The prospect of an extended and exhausting trial loomed. But the parties were able to reach an agreement that avoids a trial.

It would not really be accurate to say, however, that everyone wins under the agreement. For example, a nurse who cared for the heiress will receive much less than it originally appeared she would. 

Source: The New York Times, "Deal Over Heiress's Two Wills Benefits Charities and Family," 

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