The cast of characters starts with movie star Celeste Holm, now 94-years old, a bit addled, not in a good health, and married to a man almost half her age. Her husband is Frank Basile, age 48.
Who is Celeste Holm? For those unfamiliar, she was a notable screen star of a long-ago era, winning the 1947 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Gentleman’s Agreement.” And 3 years later, she was nominated for another supporting actress Oscar for “All About Eve.”
As the Times relates, the other members of the cast of this reality drama are Holm’s two sons, Daniel Dunning and Theodor Holm Nelson. Predictably enough, they were askance when someone much younger than they are took a supposed romantic interest in their elderly unattached parent. Think, for example, of Marshall v. Marshall and the long drawn out case of the late Vickie Lynn Marshall a.k.a. Anna Nicole Smith and her fight with E. Pierce Marshall over the billion-dollar estate of a man 62 years older than she was, her late husband, J. Howard Marshall.
And I can remember another publicized case involving yet another famous personage, the late actor and comedian Groucho Marx. That estate battle involved Groucho’s much junior companion, Erin Fleming, and Groucho’s son, Arthur. See “A Day at the Courthouse.”
But in Celeste Holm’s case, her sons have been at odds with Basile apparently from the start suspecting Basile’s supposed designs on their mother’s wealth.
Basile and Holm have been together 11 years. But after 5 years of litigation to overturn an irrevocable trust set up by Daniel Dunning, Holm’s $2 million liquid assets have mostly evaporated primarily in legal fees and other costs.
It’s a story all too familiar. And it’s also all too reminiscent of what happens when families squabble over an estate’s money. Yet another case-in-point is the one in Maricopa County, Arizona Probate Court last year concerning Marie Long, the “Elderly Millionaire Is Destitute After Payment of Fees for Lawyers“ and which I previously blogged about here.
A fight waged against you with your own money.
The irony of such battles, however, is that consistent with the law of trusts, a trustee has a duty to defend a trust against adverse claims. But here’s the rub. The disputatious families don’t always fully grasp that so long as that trustee acts in good faith, the trustee has the lawful right to pay legal fees from trust assets. See, for example, California Probate Code § 15684. Consequently, the fighting too often consumes the legacy, thus transforming the case into truly a fight over nothing.
And so when Basile and Holm commenced their litigation, Holm’s youngest son, as the trustee of the trust mounted a vigorous defense using the very trust assets meant to provide for Holm’s care and support. As the Times article notes, “Hanging over all parties is the question of why the lawsuit lasted so long and cost so much money – – – the very money they were fighting over.” And according to the story, separate from the costs incurred by her trustee son in defending Holm’s estate, Basile claims that he and his wife have litigation costs of their own, which exceed $1.5 million.
But missing from the story, is the answer to the above-asked questions. “Why has the suit dragged on?” “Why has it cost so much?”
One can only speculate. But besides the litigants, I suspect one has to also examine the role the lawyers have played for each side.
Admittedly, I am not privy to the particulars of Holm’s case other than what I read in the newspaper. Litigation, especially at the higher end Big Law levels, is extraordinarily expensive.
But apart from the Holm case, I do know this much. Whenever there’s protracted, expensive litigation, the parties are often blameworthy but the lawyers also play no small part.
To your last dollar.
A cynical lawyer friend I know who once did a lot of contingency work, which are cases where clients have no ‘skin’ in the game, was fond of admonishing, “Clients are always willing to fight to your last dollar.” But I also think the inverse is often true. Some lawyers are just as willing to fight to a client’s last dollar.
So here’s the moral of any story whenever it comes to family squabbles over an estate. When litigants refuse to consider early settlement offers or disregard prudence over what they term “principle,” far too often, assuming they’re getting paid, only the lawyers win.