Yet another Hollywood horror show is unfolding this week in a Los Angeles courtroom, the result of a dispute over the late actress Farrah Fawcett's estate plan. The major plot point: Who should get a very valuable piece of artwork?
The "Charley's Angel" star lost her battle with cancer in 2009, at age 62. She had had an on-again, off-again relationship with actor Ryan O'Neal, who she never married but with whom she had a son. She and O'Neal had had a falling out after 1997, when she found him in bed with another woman, but O'Neal contends that they were essentially "together" until her death, although they lived apart.
Her revocable trust, signed in 2007, made no mention of O'Neal, and left him nothing. She bequeathed all her artwork to her alma mater, the University of Texas. One piece of art - a silkscreen of Fawcett by Andy Warhol - went to the university shortly after her death. Only later on did the university learn there is a second, identical Warhol that O'Neal had removed from Fawcett's home after her death. That portrait has been estimated to be worth as much as $30 million. The university is suing O'Neal to get it, and O'Neal has counter-sued.
O'Neal says that Warhol was his friend, and gave the portraits to the couple with the understanding that one was for Fawcett, and the other for O'Neal. He claims that after the breakup, he took "his" original that was hanging in his home and gave it to Fawcett just to hold for him, because the huge painting was making his new girlfriend uncomfortable. O'Neal admits he entered her Los Angeles home after her death to remove the portrait and safeguard it for their son, Redmond.
The university attorneys are not buying it, claiming Fawcett was clearly the owner of both artworks. They point to documents she signed when she lent the works to the Warhol Museum, which identify her as the owner of both. She was also the one who insured both works. Other witnesses say Farrah was indeed effectively estranged from O'Neal at the time of her death, and it was her new boyfriend who tipped off the university to the existence of the second portrait.
Like Fawcett, you will not be around to speak for yourself after you are gone. Your estate plan must do that for you. Ambiguity may be fine in art, but it has no place in your estate plan. So make sure every "t" is crossed and every "i" dotted.