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Dueling wills in Gary Coleman estate

Readers in the West Palm Beach may remember Gary Coleman as the child star of the 1980s sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes." Now, two years after the actor's death, a recent court decision will have significant impact on how his estate will be administered. The litigation involved two different wills naming two different beneficiaries of the actor's probate assets.

The actor first executed a will in 2005 that named the manager of his corporation as his executor and sole beneficiary. The actor executed a second will in 2007 and, after marrying his one-time wife, added a handwritten amendment naming his wife as the sole beneficiary of his estate. The couple divorced after only a year of marriage, but the ex-wife asserted in probate court that the actor's second will should nonetheless control over distributing assets.

The ex-wife claimed that she should be entitled to the benefit of the actor's estate as his common law wife. She testified that the couple continued to live together after their divorce and shared the same financial responsibilities as during the marriage.

The probate court heard evidence that the ex-wife had not consistently resided with the actor, had pursued a relationship with another man, and had been the subject of a restraining order that barred her from going onto the actor's property. In light of the evidence, the court determined that the ex-wife's relationship with the actor did not meet the legal definition of a common law marriage.

The ex-wife may have been able to make a stronger claim to the actor's estate if the court had decided on the common law marriage question in her favor. The corporation manager now states her hopes that the probate court ruling will pave the way for her to take control of the estate and administer the assets according to the actor's wishes.

Probate litigation sometimes arises when a testator has failed to update estate planning documents, or when documents fail to clearly set forth testamentary wishes. Florida residents with concerns over conflicting estate planning documents will want to be aware of all their legal options for ensuring that a loved one's wishes are faithfully carried out.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "US judge rules against child star Gary Coleman's ex-wife," Jennifer Dobner, May 15, 2012

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