Florida Elder Law & Estate Planning Blog

This Estate Battle Began 66 Million Years Ago

Four siblings are currently fighting over their mother’s estate. That is not an unusual occurrence. But unlike other estate battles, this one started a long, long time ago. In fact, sixty-six million years ago.

On August 12, 1990, fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson was digging in the Badlands of South Dakota when she spied several bones sticking out of a cliff. What emerged after its excavation and examination was the most complete T-Rex fossil ever found. It contained 250 of 380 known bones, including a near-complete, 2000-pound skull with a dagger-like teeth. In homage to its discoverer, the fossil was named “Sue.”

The monster fossil was found on land owned by Maurice and Darlene Williams. Located on the Cheyenne reservation, the land was technically held in trust by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Realizing the fossil’s potential monetary value, several parties claimed ownership rights. The legal skirmishes came to an end in 1992, when South Dakota ruled in favor of Maurice and Darlene, saying the bones were actually “solid material of the earth” and thus, part of their parcel of land.

Maurice and Darlene cashed in on their paleontological prize, letting Sotheby’s auction it off. Private collectors and scientific organizations competed. In 1997 Sue was sold for $8.3 million to Chicago’s Field Museum, where it has been on display since 2000. Maurice and Darlene netted $7.6 million.

Estate Battle

Maurice passed away in 2011, with Darlene following in 2017. Darlene’s death ignited a family battle whose cause will sound familiar to our longtime readers: Darlene left behind two wills, with drastically conflicting provisions.

One will, executed in 2017, provides for all four of Darlene’s children and all her grandchildren. It names one daughter, Sandra Williams Luther, as the executor (personal representative).

Darlene’s second will was executed on November 20, 2020, while she was in Hospice care and shortly before she passed away. In this will, Darlene again names Sandra as personal representative. However, unlike in the earlier document, the 2020 will names Sandra as sole beneficiary, disinheriting Darlene’s three other children.

To no one’s surprise, the three disinherited children are in a legal battle with Sandra, challenging the 2020 will. They want the 2020 version tossed, pointing out that their mother was seriously ill when she signed it. They also note that there were no witnesses in the room when the signing occurred, due to covid restrictions then in effect.

Ironically, in the 2020 will Darlene acknowledges her adult children have had problems getting along with one another. She goes on to express hope that after her death, their relationships will be more amicable. How wrong could she be? Her 2020 estate plan makes the problem worse, not better. Instead of bringing the children together, her will has become a wedge that is pushing her kids’ bonds closer to extinction – the same fate that befell the T-rex.

Do not delay seeing an experienced estate planning lawyer to get your affairs in order. And always keep in mind that estate planning is not just about money; as the Wilson family feud shows, it’s also  about fostering a legacy of family harmony. Schedule an appointment with one of our lawyers to discuss your plan. Call us at 561-625-1100.