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Trust administration causing friction among author's family

Zora Neil Hurston was a well-known writer during what is often referred to as the "Harlem Renaissance." She wrote several novels during the 1930's and '40's, and is cited as an influence by many latter-day African-American authors. Unfortunately, she did not achieve financial success before she died in 1960 and did not leave an estate plan.

Now, a Florida relative of the writer is suing another relative with regard to a trust they had set up in 2001 to collect the rights to the author's work, and distribute the proceeds to her heirs. Largely because of a television movie that aired in 2005, Hurston's novels have been selling well, making the trust potentially very valuable. Reportedly, however, the writer's grand-niece, a Florida resident, has accused the writer's niece of attempting to disenfranchise the other 19 heirs, and control all of the money. The lawsuit reportedly involves some ambiguity in the language of the trust about who should have control of the funds.

The importance of estate planning cannot be overstated, even for those who feel they have little to leave to their heirs. The above situation illustrates this point, as well as the fact that the proper drafting of important documents, such as trust instruments, is essential. Trusts are an increasingly popular method of estate planning in order to more efficiently manage an estate, and avoid certain outcomes, such as probate. It is essential that the correct person be selected as trustee, and that the specifics of the trustee's power and who may benefit from the trust assets be set out clearly and comprehensively.

Everyone should consider what legacy they will be leaving to future generations. With some competent legal help and careful planning, situations leading to contentious litigation can be avoided.

Source: The New York Post, "Oprah-Halle movie spurs author family feud," Julia Marsh, Oct. 21, 2013

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