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Legal Notes: Lessons Learned From Audrey Hepburn’s Sons’ Dispute Over Her Estate

audrey hepburn 63115 1920Almost 30 years ago, on January 20, 1993, the elegant and talented actress Audrey Hepburn passed away.  When she died she had an estate plan in place that seemingly took care of everything, so that her wishes for the distribution of her estate would go smoothly after her death.  According to a Daily Mail article by Amanda Ulrich from March 2017, Audrey Hepburn had one clause in her Will that left all of her personal memorabilia from her movie career to her two sons from separate marriages in equal shares. She did not name which of her two sons would receive specific articles from her collection.  By not specifying which son was to receive specific items, her sons could not come to an agreement as to the distribution, and ended up in litigation over her estate.

By not specifying which son was to receive specific items, her sons could not come to an agreement as to the distribution, and ended up in litigation over her estate.

For over twenty years after her death, her two sons were unable to agree on the equitable distribution of her personal property, and began court proceedings in 2015.  In 2017, her sons finally agreed to mediation of their dispute over their mother’s personal property prior to a court trial.  Audrey Hepburn could have prevented this expensive and very long-term dispute by either specifically naming which items she wanted to go to each son, or by requiring mediation if her sons could not agree on how to distribute the property.  She also could have required that if there was any dispute over the distribution that the property should be sold and the proceeds from the sale be distributed equally to her sons.

Estate matters can be complicated in some cases, and can be even more complicated when the deceased has children who are half-siblings.  Arguments over a deceased’s personal property, whether they have monetary value or have only strong sentimental value, can cause irretrievable breakdowns in family relations.  This can be avoided by stating exactly who is to receive particular personal items either in the Will itself, or by an attached signed and dated memorandum to the Will for items of low monetary value, or by requiring mediation if there is any dispute.  If there is any possibility that there could be future problems with certain items or if there are items of value, listing them in the Will itself is the safest bet that your wishes will be fulfilled and to ensure family harmony as much as possible.  Audrey Hepburn created a good estate plan, but did not anticipate that her sons would fight over her personal memorabilia.  The lack of specificity regarding distribution of her personal property caused unintentional feelings of unfairness between her sons, and unnecessary litigation costs.