Another Celebrity’s Death Fiasco

Dennis Hopper’s death in May has left his estate in chaos and open to a high-profile and expensive lawsuit.  Hopper was married to his 5th wife, Victoria Duffy, back in 1996.  They sign a pre-nuptial agreement that stated if Victoria and their daughter, Galen, were still living with Hopper at the time of his death, she would inherit $250,000 in life insurance proceeds and 25% of his personal wealth.  This equated to approximately the insurance benefit and the Venice, California residence in which the couple lived, equal to millions of dollars.

The problem is, Hopper filed for divorce in January, 2010, and Victoria and Galen only moved into one of the guest houses on the same piece of property.  At this time Hopper was ill, battling prostate cancer and undergoing chemotherapy and no one can confirm his “opinion” on whether or not they were still living together.  Now it gets ugly - Victoria Hopper believes that she owns the California residence and never really vacated the compound. Just last week she filed a countersuit in response to the trustees of the Hopper’s Trust accusing her of stealing $1.5 million in art from the art collection and suing her to vacate the residence so they can sell the residence and pay down Hopper’s debt.

This is where it gets sticky because Hopper died a married man and there was neither effort to force her off the property nor any enforcement of the pre-nuptial.  Victoria is suing for $45 million in damages, lost income and legal fees, and spousal support which will readily wipe out everything inside the trust.  To make things messier, Hopper had other heirs, including his oldest daughter Marin Hopper, who Victoria claims, hates her.  Moreover, Marin is serving as one of the Trustees of Hoppers Trust.  When an heir is a Trustee who sues another heir or potential beneficiary, it is a clear conflict of interest.  This makes it difficult for a court to distinguish between self-interest and determining what Hopper’s intent was.

Hopper’s death once again points out the need for clear, well-written, estate planning documents that are reviewed and updated as situations changes.  Moreover, choosing the right person to be Trustee or executor is equally as important, because when heirs may fight and disagree, if one of those heirs is a trustee or executor there is a clear conflict of interest that makes everything more difficult and costly.

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