Which Will is the right Will, Willis?

As a child growing up in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, my earliest sitcom memories are of classics like ‘Silver Spoons’, ‘Eight is Enough” and, of course, “Diff’rent Strokes”. Arnold Jackson’s famous phrase, “Whatchu talking about Willis?” made actor Gary Coleman a sensation during the show’s six-year run, and it is not surprising that his career could go nowhere but downhill after becoming a superstar at age 10. Few could have predicted the sad trail his career (and his life) would take. No one could have predicted the bizarre ending that is taking place in a courtroom in Provo, Utah this week.

The bizarre ending I refer to is an ongoing argument over the administration of Mr. Coleman’s estate. First, a little background: Mr. Coleman got married to Shannon Price in 2007 and they were divorced in 2008. The couple lived together until Mr. Coleman died in 2010, two days after a fall in his home that resulted in a brain hemorrhage. Ms. Price made the decision to take Mr. Coleman off of life support.

Two documents have been presented to the court as the valid Last Will of Gary Coleman: a Will written in 2005 and a hand-written amendment written in 2007. The 2005 Will leaves Mr. Coleman’s assets to Anna Gray, his longtime friend and business associate. The 2007 amendment names Ms. Price as his sole heir.

Ms. Price is arguing that she and Mr. Coleman changed their minds about getting divorced and that their post-divorce relationship constituted a common-law marriage. The court has examined evidence of Ms. Price and Mr. Coleman’s joint bills and tax returns and has heard the testimony of conflicting witnesses about how close Mr. Coleman and Ms. Price were after their divorce. The court must now decide whether a common law marriage existed. If the court finds that such a relationship did exist, then Ms. Price will get everything. If not, Mr. Coleman’s assets will go to Anna Gray.

The case presents enough legal issues to excite a law professor. It also presents a life lesson that each of us should take to heart: The only way an estate plan works is if it is properly updated. If you get married, have a child, move, inherit assets, or if your life changes in any other material way, check with your attorney to see if your estate planning documents need to be updated to reflect the change. The alternative is often an expensive court battle where the only winners are the lawyers and the losers are your loved ones.