You’d be surprised to learn how hard people will fight over sentimental items. I always advise my clients to leave a memorandum of wishes attached to their will itemizing sentimental personal goods. I draft a form for them to take home and attach to their will once they’ve listed everything, but I know as well as they do that they may never get around to it at the risk of an all-out war between their loved ones. If you don’t believe me take the recent battle between Farrah Fawcett’s longtime boyfriend Ryan O’Neal and the University of Texas over a portrait of the now-deceased Charlie’s Angels star. It was ugly.
The famously gorgeous Fawcett left the university all of her artwork pursuant to a revocable living trust that she executed before her death. The university sued Mr. O’Neal after he removed the portrait from her home after she died. Come to find out there were two copies of the same portrait and the university already had one of them. When it learned that O’Neal had a second copy, it decided it wanted that one too, and under the plain reading of the trust it was so entitled.
After a three-week long trial, a jury disagreed with the university and found that Mr. O’Neal was the true owner. The jury heard testimony that O’Neal and Fawcett were dating when Andy Warhol painted the portrait in the 1970s and that Warhol gave him the second copy after O’Neal brokered a deal with Warhol. O’Neal is very fortunate that the jury agreed with his side of the story. One might ask how this matter ended up in court when Fawcett had a revocable living trust naming the University of Texas as the entity who would receive all of her artwork. Well, one disgruntled family member plus a cherished item equals the possibility of litigation. Fawcett could have cleared up any confusion over the painting by adding a line to her will or trust regarding the extra copy, although O’Neal claims this was unnecessary because it was always his painting. The problem with his claim is that the painting hung in Fawcett’s home until her death and is purportedly worth millions of dollars. In my humble opinion, someone should have seen this coming. The takeaway is this: love your family and friends enough to document your intent about who gets certain valuable items in your home even if that value is sentimental. You might think no one will fight over your old china tea set but you could be very wrong.