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Gene Wilder's privacy, wealth raises estate planning issues

The great comedic actor Gene Wilder recently passed away from Alzheimer's disease complications at 83 years old. He wanted people to best remember him for the laughter he brought audiences in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, among others, so he kept his condition out of the public eye.

As his family told The Washington Post, "The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn't vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him 'there's Willy Wonka,' would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble." Wilder leaves behind a loving family, wife of 25 years, and countless adoring fans. He also, reportedly, had an estimated net worth of about $20 million at the time of his death. When faced with a debilitating illness such as Wilder experienced, many people want to be remembered for the highlights of their lives and prefer to maintain a level of privacy as their star fades. But that secrecy can raise issues about estate plans. Keep in mind that emotions run high when someone we love passes and that's a good reason to have your affairs in order before you decline. Another reason is to protect against those who might prey on human frailty and direct estate finances to their own benefit.

If you are a beneficiary, or should be the beneficiary, of an estate plan involving someone with a debilitating condition such as Alzheimer's Disease, and you are surprised at the estate plan, there may be a legally valid reason to contest the will or trust. Some of the reasons are listed below.

Lack of capacity

Estates can be challenged based upon a person's lack of mental capacity. It's not uncommon for someone who was disinherited to bring such a claim. Ask yourself, was the person who passed of sound mind, memory and understanding when they executed the plan? Here are a few things to consider:.

  • Did the testator (the person creating the will) understand the plan and all of its provisions?
  • Did the testator understand the full, detailed breadth of their assets?
  • Was the testator affected by a mental or physical disorder when making these decisions?

Undue influence

Another delicate issue than can arise out of changes to an estate after a person has become ill is undue influence. Those closest to a person with failing health and faculties have tremendous sway over the life of someone in failing health and can create a bias toward or against certain family members, loved ones and charitable organizations. Like lack of capacity challenges, this too can have a mixed bag of emotional and financial motivations. Here are some things to consider if you are considering a challenge because a will doesn't reflect a person's true wishes:

  • Was the testator directly coerced into making stipulations or changes?
  • Was the testator overly dependent or trusting of the person who exerted influence?
  • Was the testator susceptible due to illness or frailty?
  • Did the person exerting influence substitute his/her wishes for the testator?

Contesting a will

Gene Wilder's family explained that he maintained privacy about his illness because "He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world." Proper estate planning can maintain those smiles after you pass as well. However, if you believe an estate does not reflect the wishes of a family member or loved one, contact a law firm with experience in estate planning and probate cases.

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