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Estate Battle with Millions at Stake in New Orleans

Jessica Fussell Brandt filed an eviction petition against her daughter, Julie Hartline, her son-in-law Darryl Hartline and two grandchildren, Alexis and Zachary Hartline. She is pitted against them in a legal fight over an estate valued at more than $300 million, reports nola.com in the article “In Ray Brandt estate battle, widow tries to evict family from Old Metairie compound.”

Before auto magnate Ray Brandt died at age 72 from pancreatic cancer, the entire family shared a compound that includes two mansions located next to the Metairie Country Club. Brandt has been trying to sell the property which belongs to the estate, as its executrix. The family members living there don’t want to move, even taking down “For Sale” signs from the lawn.

Her attempt to evict them comes after she won a case in her attempt to maintain control of her late husband’s estate, which includes a large number of auto dealerships and collision centers across Louisiana and Mississippi.

On January 25, a Jefferson Parish judge invalidated the last will and testament that Ray Brandt signed just weeks before his death and another last will drafted in 2015. The district judge ruled that both last wills contained a flaw in how they were notarized: neither notarization specified that Ray Brandt, the witnesses, and the notary were together when it was signed.

The decision is being appealed, but it appears to leave the fate of Brandt’s empire to a last will he made in 2010. Unlike the others, this last will places Jessica Brandt in full control of his estate and trust, including the auto dealerships, until her death.

Ultimately, Ray Brandt directed that her grandchildren, who he legally adopted as adults before he died, would split the estate’s assets.

Despite issuing a statement saying that Jessica was “pleased with the prospect beginning the healing process,” after the Jefferson Parish decision, the eviction filing revealed that Jessica’s attorneys sent an email urging family members to leave the property by January 31, 2021.

Jessica made a statement that her wish to evict family members was a result of the multiple citations issued by Jefferson Parish for continuing violations at the compound. The latest one was for a trailer and mud buggy parked in a driveway on a vacant lot. She also said that the family members own two other homes, one in Metairie and one in Fort Beauregard.

The compound where the family settled seven years ago is estimated to be worth more than $8 million.

The heart of the dispute pits Jessica Brandt against Archbishop Rummel High School principal Marc Milano, who Ray Brandt named as a trustee to oversee the auto group and the rest of the estate until Jessica Brandt dies. Milano has accused Jessica of taking money from the estate and trying to claim an ownership interest in the dealership. She sued him for defamation.

Now the grandchildren have filed their own legal action, challenging a petition to put Ray Brandt’s last will into effect. Their argument is the trust that Ray Brandt set up in 2015 makes it clear that he meant for Milano to oversee the assets.

This estate battle will no doubt keep the Jefferson Parish courts and newspapers busy for some time. It’s a lesson to keep your family’s business private, by ensuring that your estate plan is properly prepared and up to date.

Reference: nola.com (Feb. 3, 2021) “In Ray Brandt estate battle, widow tries to evict family from Old Metairie compound”

unintended heirs

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Disinheritance, Omitted, Decedent, Will, Trust, Appellate Court, Unknown Child, Last Will and Testament, Appeal

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