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Millionaire's daughter loses fight over gifts to dad's companion

The resolution of probate litigation involving the estate of a prominent Gainesville figure may serve as a reminder to West Palm Beach residents of the importance of clearly stating one's wishes in estate planning documents. In a case spanning more than two years, the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer and former mayor of Gainesville lost a probate dispute. She sought to block access to estate assets designated by her father for the benefit of a woman who had been his companion for more than 10 years.

Relying on her appointment under a durable power of attorney, the daughter sought authority over two accounts established for the benefit of the companion. Even as the daughter argued that granting her control over the accounts would reflect her father's wishes as expressed to his attorney, a lawyer representing the companion argued otherwise. It was claimed that distributing assets to the companion would best fulfill the father's intentions.

The probate court sided with the companion and ordered the daughter, as executor of her father's estate, to pay $1.8 million in attorney fees and other costs related to the lawsuit.

The competing arguments in the dispute suggest that the father, whose estate is estimated at $86 million, may have failed to update his estate plan when he designated assets to provide for his companion. The probate court was forced to rely on letters and outside testimony in reaching its conclusion.

The case of the Gainesville millionaire illustrates the importance of clearly setting forth one's testamentary wishes, especially with respect to relationships formed later in life. In the absence of a clear directive, leaving large gifts to loved ones who are not family members may lead to probate disputes that frustrate plans and deplete estate assets. Floridians involved in situations that call a testator's intent into question will want to be aware of all the legal options for achieving a fair outcome that preserves the wishes of a loved one.

Source: The Gainesville Sun, "Appeals court affirms decision against Butler's daughter," Lise Fisher, April 26, 2012

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