Warhol Painting Mess: Estate Planning Takeaways

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Farrah Fawcett’s estate planning wishes have been at the center of a number of recent lawsuits. 

Fellow actor Ryan O’Neal, Fawcett’s partner of many years and at the time of her death, was sued by the University of Texas, which claimed that he wrongfully removed the famed Andy Warhol Farrah Fawcett painting from her home after she died. O’Neal defended himself, saying that this copy of the painting was his and he had permission to take it back after Fawcett died.

The University of Texas disagreed, suing O’Neal in 2011. The university’s lawyers argued that because Fawcett’s revocable living trust left all of her artwork to the university, it should be the rightful owner of the Farrah Fawcett paining, not O’Neal. It turns out there were actually two copies of the famed portrait, and the school already received one of them. But it sued O’Neal for the other one, too.

The case proceeded to trial last month, lasting three weeks. O’Neal called several witnesses, including former friends of Fawcett and her former caregiver, who all testified that the second copy of the painting belonged to O’Neal. He testified that Warhol gave him the second copy, because he was the one who brokered the deal for the famous portrait to be made in the 1970′s.

The university countered that Fawcett said on her reality show that she was considering selling one of her two paintings, and she signed documents loaning the portraits to a museum where she listed herself as the owner. Reportedly, there were also insurance documents supporting that Fawcett owned both copies of the portrait.

However, in the end, the jury decided — by a vote of 9 to 3 — that O’Neal really did own the painting. It was reported that O’Neal was undergoing surgery when the verdict came out, and said that when his son called to tell him the good news, tears and blood streamed down his face.

Interestingly, shortly after the verdict, O’Neal gave an interview to the Today Show, during which he said he spoke to the deceased Fawcett and she gave him permission to do the interview. He also explained how he felt that he was always the true owner, and the university was convinced to sue after an enemy of his sent 90 emails to university regents accusing O’Neal of stealing the painting.

According to news reports O’Neal says he never will sell the Farrah Fawcett painting — which may be worth millions (experts gave differing values of the artwork at trial). Instead, he will make sure that Redmond — the son he fathered with Fawcett — will inherit it and keep it in the family. O’Neal says the portrait is all he has of Fawcett and treasures its sentimental value.

While spending years in litigation over a single piece of art is unusual, family fights over valuable or sentimental personal property left by a deceased loved one are far from uncommon. Indeed, when people pass along property by gifting it to someone, there is often a fight over whether the gift was valid — especially when the gift is inconsistent with estate planning documents, like a will or trust.

It’s a good lesson to share with your clients and prospects. They should always transfer personal property of value — whether monetary or sentimental — in a manner consistent with a will or trust, and with the giver’s intent documented in writing. That way, there won’t be confusion and fighting over who really owned it.

In this case, O’Neal was asked during the Today Show interview why Fawcett didn’t make her wishes more clear. He responded that there was no reason for her to do so because the portrait was always his. Considering the conflicting documents on this point, and the fact that it hung in her house — not his — when she died, this answer does not make much sense.

Watch the O’Neal interview. What do you think?  Did the jury get it right?

Danielle and Andrew Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!  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 and Google+.

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