The legacy that people leave when they pass away is not simply limited to the money or properties they include in a will. However, a person's estate plan is often all that some family members and loved ones can try to understand after losing someone close to them. In some cases, the strain of some familial relationships leaves scars that are only exacerbated when a person dies.
In these situations, it is not uncommon for family members, spouses or loved ones to contest a person's will. This can administering an estate much more difficult, and can draw out the probate process considerably. Take, for example, the estate of J. Seward Johnson Sr., who was heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. After he passed away in 1983, a three-year battle over the terms of his will took place. His widow, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, was at the center of the argument.
Johnson and his wife were married in 1971 when he was 76 and she was 34. The marriage took place even though none of Johnson's six children attended or were even invited. The pair was married for 12 years before Johnson passed away and the family learned that he had left nearly all of his fortune, about $500 million, to his wife. Five of his children were left out of the will completely.
Not surprisingly, the children challenged the will and made accusations that Johnson's wife had exerted undue influence on him while he made changes to will. Witnesses claimed that the couple was unhappy and the wife had been abusive towards her elderly husband. There were allegations of conflicts of interest and favoritism.
All told, it took three years for the case to be settled, and it cost more than $24 million in legal bills. The family's private issues were dredged up and exploited in court before the bitter battle finally came to an end. Johnson's wife kept about $300 million and his children were given a total of $40 million.
The probate battle over her husband's estate became one of the costliest and ugliest probate battles in the country. Unfortunately, this case ended up to be one of the defining life events for Johnson's wife. She recently passed away and it is unclear if the administration of her vast estate will be subject to the same challenges.
Source: The New York Times, "Barbara Piasecka Johnson, Maid Who Married Multimillionaire, Dies at 76," Bruce Weber, April 3, 2013