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Where The Wild Things Aren’t: Probate Litigation



If you read at all as a young person, you will remember the classic children’s book “Where The Wild Things Are” by the gifted author and artist Maurice Sendak. Mr. Sendak passed away in 2012 but left behind a wonderful legacy that children and adults enjoy to this day. He was extraordinarily talented and not only wrote a number of children’s books, but he was a playwright and television producer. After his death, the Pacific Northwest Ballet even dedicated their 2012 season of “The Nutcracker” to Mr. Sendak, who had designed the set.

So Mr. Sendak was an unusually talented man and produced many memorable works. However, when Mr. Sendak created his estate plan, it was memorable for less than wonderful reasons. Mr. Sendak had a very valuable rare book collection that he presumably wanted to be left in some form to the Rosenbach Museum and Library, with whom he had long and close ties throughout his life.

Here’s the rub.  The Sendak Estate has not turned over the rare book collection to the Museum.  The most valuable books at issue are original versions of books by William Blake and several books by Beatrix Potter.  Why not?  Well, here’s where the arguments get interesting.  The Estate argues that some of the books aren’t really books due to missing pages and covers.  No really.  And the Estate (of a noted children’s book author, no less), insists that children’s books in the collection are not really books.  The irony is just dripping off that statement. (Even the reporters think so: http://n.pr/1yuFEOB .)

Adding fuel to this fire is an auction scheduled by the Sendak Estate in January 2015 and a recent NY Times piece shedding light on the background and qualifications (or lack thereof) of the executor of the Sendak Esate, Ms. Lynn Caponera, Mr. Sendak’s housekeeper and caretaker of more than 30 years. (Read all about it here: http://nyti.ms/1FJVAkP ) Ms. Caponera was a confidante and friend to Mr. Sendak but has no college education nor any formal business training, casting doubts over her decisions regarding the Sendak Estate.

As with all probate related litigation, this one could have been avoided. Mr. Sendak included language in his estate plan that allowed for some negotiation between the Museum and his Estate.  Perhaps definitive language would have been more fitting for Mr. Sendak’s situation.

If you know how you want to distribute your estate, don’t be shy about it. There are many ways to hedge your bets with if/then scenarios. But if you know for sure that you want your valuable doodles on the back of cocktail napkins, your matchbook collection and your felt portrait of dogs playing poker to go to the MOMA, then you should state that clearly in your estate plan. (You may want to consider where you want your valuable and prized collections/artwork/felt portraits to go in case the MOMA rejects your donation.) You wouldn’t want those wonderful cocktail napkin doodles to end up in the dust bin collection.

So remember that wild things don’t end up in probate litigation, they don’t hedge their bets, and they are clear about their intentions. Go ahead, be a wild thing. Your heirs will be glad you were.

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