ESTATE PLANNING LESSONS FROM THOMAS KINKADE’S ESTATE

In April 2012, renowned artist Thomas Kinkade passed away at the age of 54. On July 2, 2012, Mr. Kinkade’s girlfriend, Amy Pinto-Walsh, filed a lawsuit seeking to probate some handwritten notes allegedly authored  by Mr. Kinkade that would give Ms. Pinto-Walsh his mansion and another $10 million to start a museum to exhibit his paintings.

Mr. Kinkade’s wife of 30 years, Nanette Kinkade, disputes Ms. Pinto-Walsh’s claims and has filed court papers seeking control over Mr. Kinkade’s estate.  Mr. and Mrs. Kinkade separated 2 years ago but their divorce was not finalized at the time of Mr. Kinkade’s passing.

The Kinkade case raises several  interesting legal issues.  One issue involves those handwritten notes and whether they can be probated as holographic Wills.  Most states including New Jersey (and likely California, where the Kinkade case is being heard) have estate laws which permit handwritten notes to be admitted as holographic Wills or codicils if they meet certain requirements.  For example, the party who seeks to probate the handwritten notes must show that the notes were written by the decedent. 

In New Jersey, handwritten notes must be approved for probate by the Probate Court, while most Wills drafted by lawyers and executed in the presence of witnesses and a notary need not require court approval to be probated but instead may be probated at the county Surrogate’s Office.

The Kinkade estate battle also raised another issue involving Mr. Kinkade’s marital status. The fact that the Kinkades were not yet divorced means that Mrs. Kinkade has rights to at least a portion of the artist’s estate that the divorce court says she is entitled to under a property settlement agreement.

If Mr. Kinkade had lived long enough to have finalized his divorce, perhaps Mrs. Kinkade would have received her marital share and may not be opposing Ms. Pinto-Walsh’s application.  And, if Mr. Kinkade’s divorce had been finalized before his death, he would have been well-advised to update his Will with an estate attorney to ensure that his wishes were effectively set forth to minimize the chance that his ex-wife would have any basis to claim any estate assets or act as executor of the estate.

This case study exemplifies the need to not only draft your estate planning documents with great clarity but, as importantly, to keep those documents up to date as the circumstances of your life change.