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Tom Petty estate a cautionary tale for blended families

When it comes to estate planning, we often can learn from the tales of celebrities. The case of Tom Petty is one of those that should have New Yorkers - particular those with blended families - taking note.

Singer-songwriter Petty died in October 2017 at age 66. He was married at the time of his death and had two adult daughters from a previous marriage. And since his passing, the women have been at odds over his estate.

Petty left behind a trust that should have prevented such a dispute. Instead of Petty's wishes being beyond question, each side has interpreted them differently.

His wife was left as the sole trustee, meaning she was its manager, but the trust document instructed her to transfer the artistic assets to a new limited liability company. His wife and daughters were to "be entitled to participate equally in the management of the Artistic Property Entity."

Now, the women are fighting over those directions in court.

His wife's court filings say that language is the crux of the disagreement. She said her stepdaughters interpret the term "participate equally" to mean that all three have a vote. That would leave her on the losing end of any 2-to-1 vote, she contends.

In her latest court filing, Petty's widows call the women "abusive" and "erratic." They accuse their stepmother of "gross mismanagement" that has cost them at least $5 million.

The women have been to court a number of times over provisions of his trust, including intellectual property rights, such as the right to market Petty's name and image, and royalties.

Fights over estates in blended families aren't rare occurrences, unfortunately. Few have the huge estate Petty had - reports have valued it at $95 million - or intellectual property. Still, estates of all sizes must be settled, and the language in estate documents must be clear and not subject to interpretation.

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