“Intention, good or bad, is not enough.” –John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

The words of John Steinbeck, well-known author of books such as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and Cannery Row, seem to foreshadow the predicament his own heirs would be in decades after his death.

This article from Reuters and MSNBC describe the recent disappointment of Steinbeck’s biological heirs (his son Thomas Steinbeck and granddaughter Blake Smyle) when “a New York appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that granted complete authority over the author’s work to the estate of his third wife, Elaine.”

When Steinbeck passed away in 1968 he left almost his entire estate—including the future profits from any of his works—to his third and current wife at the time, Elaine.  To his two sons from a previous marriage he left $50,000 each.  According to this article in the New York Times Steinbeck said nothing in his will about the copyrights to his works, and it is this oversight which has left his estate open to infighting and lawsuits.

“Under copyright law at the time of [Steinbeck’s] death, children and spouses of writers had interests in the renewal of copyrights. In 1981, Steinbeck’s sons sued Elaine as the executor of their father’s estate, claiming that she had renewed some copyrights in their name, but kept the royalties. The suit was settled in 1983, and the terms of the settlement are sealed.”

This may have been the end of it, except that “when she died [in 2003], Elaine Steinbeck left her estate, including her copyrights of her late husband’s works, to two sisters, her daughter and several grandchildren, none of whom are biologically related to the writer.” The distress of Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter is understandable when you consider how much effort most artists or entrepreneurs will put into keeping wealth and property in the family.

Unfortunately, this kind of confusion and family-fighting is more common than you may imagine, which is why it is so important that you design your estate plan to cover all contingencies.  This decades-long family fight could have been avoided if John Steinbeck had only included his wishes for copyright ownership and long-term inheritance in his estate plan.

Perhaps Steinbeck wanted his two sons and their children to have the experience of making their own way, as Steinbeck had to make his own way as a younger man.  Or perhaps he entrusted his estate to his wife with the assumption that she would provide for his children and grandchildren upon her death.  We may never know.  The truth is that most of these fights over inheritance or succession aren’t usually about the money; they’re about emotion and loss.

Non-traditional families in which there are second or third marriages, step-children and half-siblings, or existing bad blood between family members can be especially prone to disagreements over inheritance.  This is why it is especially important to look to the future, spell out your wishes in detail ahead of time, and talk to your family about your plan. Our firm can help you design a will or trust that will not only comfort and reassure your loved ones, but ensure that your wishes are followed for years to come.

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