By all accounts, actor Gary Coleman had a difficult life after his days as the childhood star of “Diff'rent Strokes.” So, perhaps it’s no surprise that his estate has been filled with difficulties, too. But at least he left behind a couple good lessons that you can share with your clients who haven’t properly done their estate planning.
Coleman was estranged from his parents and died – nearly broke – at the age of 42. While he was married at one time, he said in a TV interview that he remained a virgin, even after his marriage. So what kind of marriage was it?
Not a very happy one, according to a Utah judge who recently issued a ruling to decide who gets to administer, and ultimately inherit, what little constitutes Gary Coleman's estate. The lawsuit pitted Gary Coleman's ex-wife, Shannon Price – who said she actually was still his wife until he died – against Coleman's friend and former head of his corporation, Anna Gray.
In 2005, Gary Coleman signed a will naming Gray as his executor and beneficiary. But Coleman married Price in 2007 and then signed a handwritten codicil to the will in favor of Price that same year. Interestingly, in the will, Coleman wrote that:
“I have made this change of free will and was not coerced in any way. This I have done because of my personal selfishness and weakness and I love her with all of my heart.”
Odd language. But that marked only the beginnings of the oddities surrounding Coleman's estate. Under Utah law, this codicil became ineffective because Coleman and Price divorced in 2008. They even appeared on an episode of the TV series “Divorce Court” together. So that should have ended the case, right?
Of course not. Price filed to enforce the codicil by arguing that they were still married, even though they had been divorced, as common-law husband and wife. She claimed the only reason they didn't officially get re-married was because they wanted to avoid publicity. Maybe the “Divorce Court” episode didn't count?
A common-law marriage is valid in Utah and allows a couple to be recognized as married if they live together as man and wife, hold themselves out to others as being married, and meet certain other requirements. Most states don't recognize these types of marriages. It's not always easy to tell, after the fact, if a couple was "married" or not, unless it's official.
That was the dilemma facing the judge in this case. So he held a trial to determine if Price and Coleman really were the love-birds Price claimed they were. If so, Price would inherit Coleman's estate. If not, she would get nothing.
To make it more interesting, there was very little in Coleman's estate – a modest house with a mortgage and some royalties from his acting days – but Price said she wanted to win so she could receive his ashes. Apparently, Price hoped to keep some of the ashes in a locket to wear around her neck to remember her former husband by.
She claimed throughout the trial that they had a loving, sexual relationship until he died. The judge was not convinced. He ruled, based on the testimony of several witnesses, that she physically abused Coleman in public, led him around by the hand like a child, displayed no physical affection towards him in front of anyone, and told others that they slept in separate rooms. The judge also pointed to a 2010 restraining order that Coleman obtained against Price, locking her out of the house. All this was enough to do in Price's case.
Well, that, along with the fact that Price had an open, romantic relationship with another man during part of the time she claimed that she was actually married to Coleman. But she really loved Coleman, right?
The judge felt that Price has a significant self-interest – she wants to be an actress and model – and did not find her to be credible. So he ruled that there was no marriage and therefore, the handwritten codicil is invalid. This paves the way for Gray to assume control of and become the only beneficiary of Gary Coleman's estate under the 2005 will.
What a mess…and a completely avoidable mess at that. Gary Coleman could have avoided this entire fiasco by doing the proper estate planning.
Simply having a will is not enough. Wills and other estate planning documents need to be updated with life events like marriages, divorces, new children and other circumstances. And, of course, the updates should be done by experienced estate planning attorneys.
Coleman did his own codicil. If he really wanted Price to inherit his estate, he should have hired a good lawyer to prepare the codicil, and then affirmed it after they were divorced. People are allowed to name their ex-spouses as beneficiaries but, in most states such as Utah, the law automatically revokes wills and codicils prepared during the marriage when there is a subsequent divorce. But that can be avoided with the proper documentation after the divorce.
And if Coleman didn't want Price to inherit, he should have created a new will or codicil after the divorce to be sure. Then, the private details of their relationship would have been kept out of court because they wouldn't have mattered.
He probably should have changed his living will and power of attorney documents, too. It was Price who was still named in his documents so after Coleman fell and hit his head just before he died, she was the one who decided to pull the plug and end Coleman's life.
This story is a particularly good one to share with your clients who say they don’t have enough money to worry about estate planning. Even modest estates can be the subject of ugly and bitter court fights, like this one, especially if a termination-of-life-support dispute arises. Shortcuts may save money in legal fees, but they are seldom worth it for your clients’ families in the long run.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.