Tragically, Tom Petty passed away in 2017. He left behind his wife, Dana Petty, and daughters, Adria Petty and AnnakimViolette, from a previous marriage.
Before he passed away, Tom Petty had prepared an estate plan. Upon his death, Dana was appointed as the sole trustee of Tom Petty’s entire estate. In the documents, there was a provision included that required Dana, and Tom’s two daughters, Adria, and Annakim, to participate equally in the management of the estates’ artistic assets.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Tom Petty’s estate plan was not as precisely written as the lyrics he was famous for.
The Beginning of a Long Lititgation
Adria Petty and Annakim Violette filed a lawsuit against Dana Petty for the court’s interpretation of the term “participate equally” in regards to the estates’ artistic assets. The daughters believe that the term “participate equally” would mean that Adria, Annakim, and Dana each get a vote with majority rule. Dana did not have the same interpretation of the same term.
Dana Petty responded to the lawsuit by claiming that as sole trustee, she alone has the authority to create the entity that will manage the estate’s assets and that “participate equally” applies only to management of that entity. As a result, this disagreement of definition sparked an extremely long and arduous litigation to decide what the document’s language meant.
Determining the Meaning of Language in Estate Plans
When an estate plan has terms with an unclear interpretation, it will lead to many issues including expensive litigation. The court process for interpreting an estate document can be complicated when the language used in an estate document can be interpreted in multiple ways.
Firstly, In California, to determine what the settlor intended, the court will have the express language of the document examined. If the language is determined to be clear and definite by the court, the analysis will end and the matter is settled. However, if the court believes the language to be ambiguous, the court will then consider the circumstances under which the estate was created.
Secondly, and finally, if the court determined the document’s language to be ambiguous, the court will attempt to place itself in the estate creator’s shoes. The court will exercise its independent judgment of the estate creator’s intention by examining evidence that is uncontested from outside the document. For example, the court may consider when the document was created, if there the documents were created by an attorney, and what kind of state of health the settlor was in. If that is the case, the process could potentially be excruciatingly long no matter how large or small an estate may be.
How Do I Get Legal Assistance for Estate Planning?
Involving the court in determining your wishes is costly, time consuming, and frustrating for your beneficiaries. If you are interested in planning your estate, please contact one of the experienced attorneys at Lonich Patton Ehrlich Policastri to assist in drafting your documents with the most clear and definite language possible.
Meanwhile, please remember that each individual situation is unique, and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may detail general legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.