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Gary Coleman's ex-wife loses estate litigation

Actor Gary Coleman passed away nearly two years ago after suffering a head injury in a fall at his home. The actor was 42-years-old, and sources say that he was nearly broke. However, because of the nature of his profession, his estate may be entitled to royalties from his acting career and two women waged a probate court dispute over the late actor's estate. The estate also included his house.

Coleman's ex-wife and a former girlfriend fought over the actor's estate in probate court recently. The matter was put to trial to determine who should be the beneficiary of Coleman's estate.

An ex-girlfriend claimed that she had managed the actor's affairs for years, and in 2005, she says that she was named executor and beneficiary of Coleman's estate. In 2007, the actor married a different woman, and she says Coleman hand signed a codicil to his will. A codicil essentially is an amendment to the terms of the will.

The marriage reportedly did not last, and the couple divorced in 2008, two years before Coleman passed away. Coleman's ex-wife continued to live in the home with the actor after the divorce. She says that the couple remained in love, and she asked the court to uphold the codicil.

Every state has its own probate laws. The Coleman dispute did not occur in Michigan, and probate issues are generally a function of individual state law. The case was tried out West in a state that recognizes common law marriage, which was also an issue in the case. For Michigan residents, the legal documentation at issue in the estate litigation remains highly relevant.

In the end, the probate judge ruled in favor of the former girlfriend under the original terms of the will. He did not find the ex-wife's testimony credible, and further ruled the handwritten codicil invalid.

Sources indicate that Coleman drafted the handwritten codicil without the benefit of advice and assistance from an experienced estate planning lawyer. Moreover, as life changing events occur, a person can change their estate planning documents to properly reflect their true desires in light of the changed circumstances.

Generally, codicils can be effective tools--but it is important to update an estate plan with changing circumstances, and a seasoned estate planning attorney can help to draft language in a will or codicil under generally understood principles of probate law.

Coleman reportedly drafted a will in 2005. After drafting the original will, he had at least two life changing events that many commentators say are the type of events a person should revisit his or her estate planning documents--his 2007 marriage and his 2008 divorce.

Source: Toronto Sun, "Judge rules against Coleman's ex," Kimberly Potts, Reuters, May 15, 2012

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