Will there be a fight over Gary Coleman’s estate?

Gary Coleman died just over a week ago, on May 28, 2010.  And in that week, there have already been enough surprises to spark a whole series of “Whatcha talkin ’bout Willis!”‘s.  Coleman and Price

First came the question of how Gary Coleman died at the age of 42.  According to the 911 tapes, Shannon Price (who called herself his wife) summoned emergency personnel when he fell and hit his head.  She was frantic over what to do with her “husband”.

Sadly, he didn’t recover from the accident, despite being “conscious and lucid” the next morning, according to a Provo, Utah hospital spokesman.  He took a turn for the worse and was put on life support until Price decided to pull the plug, only two days after he hit his head.

Coleman’s parents were bothered after they learned of his death from the media.  Of course, these parents weren’t exactly close with their son.  He had successfully sued them in 1989, claiming they had stolen much of his earnings as a childhood star of Diff’rent Strokes (among other shows), which had been held in trust for him.

Despite their estrangement, Coleman’s parents wanted answers as to how he died.  They questioned how Price could have decided to pull the plug and terminate his life support.

They were concerned when it was revealed that Price wasn’t actually Coleman’s wife.  They were married in 2007, after dating for five months.  But Coleman and the 22-year-old Price divorced in August, 2008.  In fact, they even appeared on an episode of Divorce Court together.  You can watch it on youtube — here are the highlights:  Divorce Court video.

So how was Price legally able to end Coleman’s life if they were no longer married?

Coleman had signed an important estate document that every adult needs — an advanced health care directive.  States use different names for legal documents like this, which record end-of-life wishes and appoint a decision-maker when the signer is no longer able to make his or her own decisions.  That document, according to the Utah hospital where Coleman died, gave Price the legal authority to end life support.  Price says she didn’t want Coleman to end up in a “Terri Schiavo” situation.

In fact, even if they had been married, Price still would not have been able to legally terminate life support without a legal document like the advanced health care directive (unless she first obtained a court order).

Price also made funeral arrangements for Coleman, to be held in Salt Lake City this weekend.  Those plans had to be put on hold though.

Why?  Because Coleman’s parents went to court to stop the funeral because Price was no longer his wife.  While she had the power to end his life, her legal authority ended once he died, so she didn’t have the legal authority to plan his funeral.

Instead, Coleman’s parents filed to open their son’s estate in probate court, saying he had no will.  Under intestate law (which applies when there is no will), they would stand to inherit his estate and to control it as executors — including the decision of when and how to bury his body.  They wanted to fly Coleman’s remains back to his boyhood home of Zion, Illinois for a funeral there.

Coleman’s Utah-based attorney said Coleman had no will.  In fact, he had been trying to convince Coleman to sit down and sign a will for a long time.  Apparently, Coleman was planning to see the lawyer to create a will in a few weeks.  So there is no will, right?

Not so fast.  Apparently, Coleman did have a will.  He had an older one, from 1999 (before he moved to Utah where he later met Price).  Despite his failure to update the will after either his marriage or his divorce, the will would still be valid.  At least, that’s assuming there are no other wills that surface later.

And what does it say?  Because it hasn’t been filed with the probate court yet, we don’t know (but it will be revealed soon because wills are public documents one they’re filed in probate court).

So far, it’s only been reported that the estate executor is named Dion Mial, a friend and former manager that Coleman reportedly trusted to handle his final wishes.  Because of this, his parents withdrew their filing, and the funeral plans are now up in the air.

Whew!  It’s only been eight days.  What kind of dramatics will there be once the rest of the will — including who gets to inherit what — is revealed?

And, what type of joint assets remain between Coleman and Price?  If he never updated his will after the divorce, maybe Price is still a joint owner of his bank accounts, home, or investments (which is common between many married people).

In fact, reportedly, Coleman and Price were still living together and even planned to remarry, once Coleman’s earlier health problems improved.  So Coleman still could have provided for her, even without updating his will since 1999.  But, whatever plans he made or didn’t make could very likely lead to fighting in probate court, because his legal documents weren’t updated.  The terms of the divorce judgment may also come into play.

Judging from the drama of the first week, this estate could turn out to be a wild one.

And let this case be a good lesson for you and your loved ones.  No one is promised tomorrow.  Update your wills, trusts and other legal documents.  It’s especially important after life events like marriages and divorces.

And if you don’t have an advanced health care directive, medical power of attorney, living will, or similar document, take care of it soon.  If Coleman hadn’t signed a document like that, then Price would have needed to go to court to terminate his life support.  His estranged parents would have received notice of the court hearing and had the right to fight the decision.  That could have been a very ugly fight, indeed.

Every adult in this country who doesn’t have a valid document allowing someone to make medical, financial and end-of-life decisions in case of disability should see a good estate planning lawyer and protect themselves and their families.

By Andrew W. Mayoras and Danielle B. Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys.  As educators across the United States through speaking engagements, print, broadcast, and social media, Danielle and Andrew consistently draw rave reviews and are in high demand.   Email them at contact@trialandheirs.com.

Categories: Celebrities, Probate Court, Trusts, Wills
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