The 10 Most Infamous Family Inheritance Feuds

Nothing is certain but death and taxes, and where those two intersect -- wills and the estates people leave behind when they pass -- there's supposed to be some certainty as well. Wills are supposed to be final. But unsurprisingly, sometimes heirs and potential heirs don't see them that way. A $100 million estate left to the "wrong" people can cause court battles over estates that can last years.

24/7 Wall St. has lined up a list of 10 of the most infamous estate battles. Most were fought overs tens of millions -- or even billions -- of dollars. Some of these fights are still in the courts today. And one involves the inheritance of a man who hasn't even died yet.

Not every famous estate fight is over money, though. One notorious battle that made headlines around the world was over what should happen to the body, particularly the head, of famous baseball slugger Ted Williams. So, the 24/7 Wall St. list of the Most Infamous Family Estate Feuds is based as much on the notoriety of the cases as the size of the estates.

The list:

1. J. Howard Marshall II
Value of estate: $1.6 billion
Amount contested: $300 million
Feuding parties: wife and son

J. Howard Marshall amassed a fortune of approximately $1.6 billion as an oil tycoon. In 1994, when Marshall was 89 years old, he married Anna Nicole Smith, a former stripper who gained fame as a Playboy Playmate. She was 62 years his junior, which prompted some people to speculate that Smith only married Marshall for his money. Smith always denied those accusations. The marriage lasted for 14 months, ending when Marshall died. Anna Nicole Smith was completely left out of Marshall's will, which left the majority of his fortune to his son, E. Pierce Marshall. Smith claimed that her deceased husband had promised that he would leave her half of his fortune, but that Pierce had prevented him from doing so through forgery, fraud, and false imprisonment. Smith passed away 2007. The case is before the U.S. Supreme Court for the second time since 2006.

2. Leona Helmsley
Value of estate: $4 billion
Amount contested: $12 million
Feuding parties: dog and grandchildren

Leona Helmsley left behind an unusual will after her death in 2007. The billionaire New York City real estate developer and hotel magnate had amassed a fortune estimated to be somewhere between $5 billion and $8 billion, according to The New York Times. In her will, she requested that the majority of this money be given to charity, including animal welfare programs, and gave other, smaller amounts to various relatives. Most shockingly, Helmsley left $12 million to her 8-year-old dog, Trouble, but no money for two of her grandchildren, directly specifying in her will that she had "not made any provisions in this Will for my grandson Craig Panzirer or my granddaughter Meegan Panzirer for reasons which are known to them." At the time that this news was announced, there were so many death threats against the dog that it began requiring $100,000 worth of security each year. In 2008, a Manhattan judge reduced the $12 million figure to $2 million, and the remainder was given to charity.The two grandchildren left out of the will were awarded a total $6 million from their grandmother's estate.

3. Brooke Astor
Value of estate: $198 million
Amount contested: N/A
Feuding parties: son and grandson

Brooke Astor was a wealthy New York City socialite and philanthropist who passed away in 2007 at the age of 105. Her only son, Anthony D. Marshall, was the executor of her $198 million estate until 2006. That year, Marshall was accused by his son, Philip Marshall, of defrauding Astor in the late stages of her life and stealing millions of dollars from her. Although Astor died, the case is ongoing. Anthony Marshall was found guilty of a number of fraud and conspiracy charges, as well as first-degree grand larceny, and was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison in 2009. The case is under appeal.

4. Sumner Redstone

Value of estate: $7.7 billion
Amount contested: $233 million
Feuding parties: father, daughter, and son

Sumner Redstone and his daughter, Shari Redstone, have a history of feuding. Sumner is chairman and majority shareholder of CBS, Viacom and National Amusements, among other companies. During the summer of 2007, the pair made headlines when it was reported that Sumner wasn't sure if he wanted his daughter, who was and remains the vice-chairman of CBS and Viacom, to succeed him. During the dispute, both Redstones publicly divulged that they were considering cutting business ties.

Although the disagreement subsided, public fighting erupted again in 2008 when National Amusements, of which Sumner is majority owner and Shari is president, was forced to sell $233 million worth of stock in CBS and Viacom. The two gave opposing reasons for this move. But if Shari wants to be chairman of CBS and Viacom after her father's death -- not to mention inheriting his majority stakes in a host of media companies -- she needs to stay on his good side. Sumner was also sued by his son, Brent Redstone, in 2006, over claims that his father favored Shari and wanted to shut him out of National Amusements' company affairs. The suit was settled in 2007 after Brent's share of the company was bought out for what The Wall Street Journal estimated to be about $1.3 billion.

5. Jay Pritzker
Value of estate: $15 billion
Amount contested: $1 billion
Feuding parties: 11 cousins

Jay Pritzker built a $15 billion fortune based partly on the Hyatt hotel chain, which he started in 1957. After he died in 1999, the remaining Pritzkers were meant to run the empire as a unit. In 2002, however, two of Jay's grandchildren, sister and brother Liesel and Matthew Pritzker, filed a lawsuit against her father, Robert Pritzker and their other relatives, claiming that approximately $1 billion had been unlawfully taken from their trust funds. In 2005, the lawsuit was settled when both Liesel and Matthew received $500 million and relinquished all further claims on family assets, according to The Chicago Tribune. Following the lawsuit, the family's remaining assets were divided among the other eleven Pritzker relatives.

6. H.L. Hunt

Value of estate: $8 billion
Amount contested: $4 billion
Feuding parties: great-grandchild and nephew, among others

Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt was at one point among the richest men in the United States. With his wealth, he set up a number of trusts to provide for his family. In 2008, H.L.'s first great-grandchild, Albert G. Hill III, sued his father, sisters, aunts and Tom Hunt, H.L.'s nephew, claiming they were mismanaging his grandmother and great uncle's trust funds, along with their primary asset, Hunt Petroleum. The dispute came to a head when Tom Hunt, who was chairman of Hunt Petroleum at the time, decided to sell the company. Albert III was eventually disinherited, alienating himself from the family business, and Hunt Petroleum was sold to XTO Energy. In April of this year, his wife and he were indicted on multiple felony counts of mortgage fraud, arising after the couple lied about their income to obtain a home improvement loan.

7. John Seward Johnson I
Value of estate: $400 million
Amount contested: $400 million
Feuding parties: wife and children

John Seward Johnson I was one of the sons of Robert Wood Johnson I, a co-founder of Johnson & Johnson. When he died in 1983 of prostate cancer, he left almost the entirety of his fortune to his third wife, Barbara Piasecka, a former maid 42 years younger than him. Johnson's children immediately contested this, claiming that Piasecka abused their father and "terrorized" him into leaving her all of his money. Three years and $10 million in legal fees later, a judge found that Johnson had not been mentally competent when he signed his will, and ordered Piasecka to pay Johnson's children $160 million.

8. James Brown
Value of estate: $100 million
Amount contested: $50 million
Feuding parties: wife, children, outside party

Singer James Brown, "the Godfather of Soul," died of heart failure in late 2006 at age 73, leaving behind an estate of approximately $100 million. Brown specified in his will that he wanted his money to be divided between two trusts: one for the education of his grandchildren and one for the education of needy children in Georgia and South Carolina. According to the New York Post, Brown's will stated that if he failed to provide for any relatives, "such failure is intentional and not occasioned by accident or mistake." Despite this, Brown's wife and children challenged the will in 2009 and were subsequently awarded half of his fortune by the court. This decision has recently been challenged by Jacque Hollander, a record producer who helped Brown start the original trusts for the nonprofits and who now wants control of the money originally set aside for them.

9. Fred Koch
Value of estate: $5.6 billion
Amount contested: $2.3 billion
Feuding parties: four brothers

The four sons of Fred Koch, co-founder of energy conglomerate Koch Industries, spent nearly twenty years feuding with one another over whether two brothers, Charles and David, cheated the other two, William and Frederick, out of $2.3 billion when they sold their shares of Koch Industries in 1983 for around $1 billion. For years, the billionaires reportedly communicated only through lawyers, occasionally making efforts to publicly humiliate and discredit one another. After years of fighting and millions of dollars spent on legal fees, the brothers reconciled in 2001.

10. Ted Williams
Value of estate: N/A
Amount contested: Williams' body
Feuding parties: three children

The circumstances surrounding baseball great Ted Williams' will are truly bizarre. In 1996, Williams signed a will stating that he wished to be cremated and to have his ashes spread out at sea. After his death, however, the executor of his estate claimed that Williams wanted to be cryogenically frozen. Two of his children supported this action, citing a piece of paper Williams had signed in which the three all agreed to be frozen so that they would, according to an article from the AP, "be able to be together in the future, even if it is only a chance." His eldest daughter fought against the disposition of his body, but gave up after running out of money. Williams is currently frozen, with his head separated from his body. His son died of leukemia in 2004 and was also frozen.

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wise adage: you don't know someone until you inherit with them :-)

June 07 2011 at 9:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frank

Amazing what money does to people. If you have money and want it to go to specific people or causes, do it while you are alive. Otherwise you have no gaurantee your wishes will be carried out.

June 07 2011 at 8:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
drdave415

In the end, the lawyers always win. In TN, a lawyer can charge 5% of your inheritance plus expenses for simply filing paperwork. Many believe that they need to use the same law firm that wrote the will. This is not true. Get a lawyer that will charge by the hour and make sure they give you a letter of engagement that defines their fees.

June 06 2011 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ccrider5020

i'm glad i won't have that problem i'm to freakin broke

June 06 2011 at 10:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
marine1942

Kennedy ???

June 06 2011 at 9:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kat

Can't relate.

June 06 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hman570

Gee I guess when I pass, I hope that my family will not be fighting on my money!!! I have decided to spend it all before I go!!! That should take about 20 minutes I figure!!! To hell with the lawyers!!!! They will get nothing from my estate!!!!

June 06 2011 at 5:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hi Tricia

you need to have a trust. None of this would have happened.

June 06 2011 at 5:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Hi Tricia's comment
jim

Trusts are only good if the wariing parties honor them. if not, they're not worth the time and paper.

June 08 2011 at 4:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mary Ann

wills when will they ever mean what they state.

June 06 2011 at 4:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Clay

crazy friggin people!!!!!!!!

June 06 2011 at 3:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply