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Ernie Banks’ Probate and Will Dispute Provides Important Estate Planning Lessons

Well known Chicago baseball player Ernie Banks died in January of this year. In addition to his baseball prowess, he was the first black Ford dealer, and was awarded the 2013 Congressional Medal of Honor. Sadly, however, his death has raised significant estate and probate issues, and serves as a reminder of how important it is to plan ahead.

The Dispute Over the Banks Estate

Banks died in January of dementia, according to his death certificate. The problem is that just months before his death Banks executed brand new estate documents—wills, directives, powers of attorney, etc. The new documents strangely omitted his family, including his estranged wife and children, and instead, left everything to his caregiver and agent, Regina Rice.

As you may imagine, the Banks family is now contesting the will, saying that Banks was coerced into changing the documents by Rice, who during Banks’ later stages, exerted significant control over his activities. They also contend that he did not have the mental capacity or understanding at that stage in his life to change his estate documents.

Rice obviously disputes these allegations, and even points to a Sports Illustrated interview Banks gave shortly before his death, to illustrate his lucidity and comprehension.

There are huge stakes involved. Aside from his personal assets, are the continuing proceeds that will be realized from the value of his name and reputation.

Changing Estate Documents

With proper estate documents, anybody can include or exclude anybody else, even immediate family, from inheriting estate assets. But doing so has to be explicitly clear in writing. And, importantly with Banks, the person creating, amending or altering the documents must be of sound mind and not under undue influence.

When people wait until later in life to create or change such documents, when they may be in the midst of disease or illness, questions can easily arise as to mental capacity—especially when someone is cut out of an inheritance, and especially when the ones included in the will are those who were influential to the deceased.

These questions can be more than questions—they can evolve into nasty, heavily litigated probate disputes, pitting family against family. Because the person who really knows what happened is deceased, litigants are left to conjecture, hearsay, medical records, or other speculative or circumstantial evidence, to demonstrate the validity of the estate documents.

If for some reason estate documents must be changed, and there is a chance that the maker may not be completely lucid, assume there will be a probate fight, and take steps in advance to prevent it. A probate or guardianship attorney should be consulted, and proper and full witnessing (including possibly videotaping) of signatures should be used. In some cases, written explanations or rationales for including or excluding individuals may be left to help any disputes over document interpretations.

Don’t leave estate planning, or your family’s peace of mind, to chance (or lawsuits). Contact Tampa business and probate attorney David Toback to discuss your needs and make sure your estate is managed correctly and that your documents clearly indicate your wishes.

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