Image Credit: Lou Wolf49
On March 1st, my new book, Alzheimer's, Widowed Stepmothers & Estate Crimes, will be published and available on Amazon. One of the central themes of my new book is that cognitive decline is a leading cause of estate battles. In many cases, it is the contributing factor to elder financial abuse. When seniors have Alzheimer's or Lewy Body Dementia, they are at their most vulnerable, and it falls to their families to sort out the shambles of their estates.
Nowhere was this more true than in the case of the late, great actor Marlon Brando. We remember him now mostly for his iconic portrayal of Don Vito Corleone, the unforgettable Godfather in the movie by Francis Ford Coppola. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, he was far more than that. Brando was regarded as the greatest actor of his time, and the winner of countless acting awards including two Oscars.
Despite Brando's enormous wealth, and despite his best intentions to leave behind an estate to take care of family members who depended on him, when he died in 2004 at the age of 80 from dementia and lung failure, his estate became embroiled in more than two dozen lawsuits.
Besides his questionable mental state, several other factors led to Brando's tumultuous estate battles. First, he signed a new amendment to his Will just days before he died. Second, he replaced his personal assistant of 50 years, and a business manager of 40 years, with new executors, right before he died. And third, he had children by three different marriages, each of which ended in divorce, as well as children with other partners.
Besides his mental capacity, at issue in many of the lawsuits was the question of what Marlon Brando really wanted to be done with his assets after he died. For example, in 1966, Brando paid $200,000 for a Polynesian island called Teti'aroa which he said was "more gorgeous than anything I had anticipated," and where he lived much of his later years. After he died, his executors decided that the island should be developed. Brando's former business manager filed a suit claiming that the Trustees were mismanaging that development.
Other lawsuits claimed that Brando was "incapacitated, confused, medicated and non-communicative," which resulted in years of legal wrangling over what part of Brando's assets were handled according to his express wishes. Some of Brando's children were disinherited, perhaps intentionally or perhaps unintentionally, which resulted in more battles.
Even as late as 2013, Brando's estate was still involved in litigation. In one famous case, the estate sued Madonna for using Brando's image in her concerts without his permission. Madonna had paid $5,000 to the estates of James Dean, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and others, but Brando's estate demanded $20,000. When she balked, the estate sued her for more than $1 million; the case was eventually settled.
All of these issues could have been avoided by Brando at an earlier stage in his life, especially when his mental capacity was not in question, but as the years went by, it became inevitable that the Brando estate would be a magnet for controversy.
When it comes to estate planning, especially for those with complicated personal lives, it is important to get highly experienced legal counsel, and to communicate with all the parties involved along the way. Otherwise, an estate is destined to become embroiled in expensive and extended litigation.