Florida Elder Law & Estate Planning Blog

Estate Feud Erupts Over Norman Rockwell Artwork

The late painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell was renown for depicting scenes of idyllic family gatherings. Ironically, his artwork is responsible for plunging one family into conflict. The family’s estate battle involves several generations and focuses on which family member is the rightful owner of the art. The situation offers lessons for anyone who wants to preserve family harmony and ensure their tangible personal property ends up in the right hands. We will conclude this post by advising you on how to achieve that goal.


So You Want To See the President!

The artwork in question is a series of Rockwell sketches entitled So You Want To See the President! Published originally in the Saturday Evening Post, the four sketches portray people from all walks of life in the White House, waiting to see the Chief Executive. In 1941, Rockwell gifted the original sketches to Stephen T. Early, press secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rockwell even included Early himself in one of the illustrations. The sketches are now valued at about $8 million. Stephen Early died in 1951, leaving behind three children, and no clear answers as to who was to inherit the Rockwells.

In 2017, one of his children, Thomas Early, was watching a televised White House press conference when something familiar caught his eye. There, hanging on a wall in the West Wing, he saw the original  sketches that had belonged to his father. Thomas was flabbergasted. He had been led to believe his father left the sketches to all three of his children and that all three were equal owners. He also believed his sister, Helen Early Elam, was keeping the sketches in her home for safekeeping.  So why were they hanging on a wall in the White House? And who put them there?

Thomas contacted the White House curator, writing, “We need to know who loaned those paintings to the White House. These works of art were the most precious and prized possession of my mother and father.” The White House informed him that the artwork was on loan from an anonymous party. Thomas’ guess was that the “anonymous” party was Helen’s son, his nephew, William Elam. Thomas  alleges that William removed the illustrations from his mother’s home and offered them to the White House in order to obscure the chain of ownership, planning to eventually take sole possession of the valuable work.

Thomas Early has now passed away, but in 2023, Thomas’ son, along with several of his cousins, pressed on with their claim. They filed suit in Virginia, requesting that the court recognize all three of Stephen Early’s children as equal owners of the Rockwells. They are also asking for for $350,000 in damages.


The Elam Countersuit   

A countersuit was filed in Virginia by William Elam III, Helen’s grandson (she too has since passed away).  William insists that his grandmother received the Rockwells from her father in 1941 as a college graduation present, and thus, she was the sole owner. He claims Helen passed the Rockwells to her son, his father, who then passed them to him. William is asking the court to recognize him as the sole owner. To support his claim, he reports that Helen’s siblings once urged her to sell the illustrations to pay for her medical and living expenses, which he considers proof that they knew the art belonged to her alone. William also notes that when Helen’s brother Thomas passed away, his estate inventory did not include the Rockwells; if all of Stephen Early’s children were equal owners, one-third of the value of the art would have been included in his son Stephen’s inventory.

William disputes the notion that the art ended up in the White House for nefarious purposes. According to him, Helen sent the Rockwells to the White House because her home had been burglarized and she wanted them kept in a more secure place. “The notion that she lent these works to a building as public as the White House in order to hide them is ridiculously bogus,” William’s attorney has said.

In 2022, when the White House was made aware of this legal dispute, it removed the art and gave it to William, who is holding it while the lawsuits make their way through the Virginia courts.


Your Tangible Personal Property 

Many people who meticulously plan their estates nonetheless give short shrift to their tangible personal property. Besides artwork, tangible personal property can include jewelry, collectibles, household décor  items, anything that has intrinsic value. It’s not only dollar value that is relevant; items family members want to inherit are often those with great sentimental value and little monetary value. In our experience, people tend to assume that their children will “just work it out” when the time comes. But as the story above demonstrates, in some families the kids do not work it out – at least, not amicably. Other people may be too uncomfortable to ask their children what items they want to receive, fearing they will find themselves in a difficult position if there are competing requests for the same item.


A Tangible Personal Property List Can Avoid Family Conflict

The most efficient way to make sure your tangible personal property gets to the people of your choice after you pass on is to create a tangible personal property list, as permitted under Florida Statute 732.515. This is a “separate writing” in which you list your items of personal tangible property, along with their intended recipients. To be valid, the document must be referenced in your will. You may also include photographs of the items. The list must be signed and dated, and may be created prior to the execution of your will or trust, or after.

We are occasionally asked if directions for the distribution of tangible personal property should be included in a will or trust. The answer is a definite no. If you did that, every time you purchased a new item, lost one, or gave one away, you would have to create a codicil to your will or an amendment to your trust. A Tangible Personal Property List allows you to avoid that bother and associated legal fees. You can simply update the list anytime you wish.

The list provides a roadmap for your personal representative or your trustee to distribute the listed items when the time comes. Having a list also helps your personal representative or trustee make sure items don’t go missing. We have all heard unpleasant stories about a deceased person’s home, office or storage locker being entered by adult children or others who whisk away items they believe they’re entitled to, before the fiduciary even has the opportunity to secure the premises and take inventory.


When you build your estate plan with The Karp Law Firm, we will talk with you about  your tangible personal property and advise you on how to handle passing it on to the people of your choice. Call us at 561-625-1100 to schedule your estate planning consultation.