Charles Kuralt, the TV Journalist and "On the Road" reporter, has another distinction. He has become famous in estate planning circles for "what not to do" with regard to your estate plan.

Mr. Kuralt died at age 62 of complications from lupus. His wife survived him, and under his 1994 will, his estate passed to his wife and his two daughters from a prior marriage.

After his death, the truth emerged. While his wife lived in New York City, Kuralt had a second, "shadow" family with Pat Shannon. Over the nearly 30-year course of their relationship, Kuralt and Shannon saw each other regularly and maintained contact by phone and mail. Kuralt was the primary source of financial support for Shannon and established close, personal relationships with Shannon’s three children. Kuralt provided financial support for a joint business venture managed by Shannon and transferred a home in Ireland to Shannon as a gift.

In April1997 Kuralt deeded his interest in a 20-acre parcel with a cabin in Montana to Shannon. The transaction was disguised as a sale, but Kuralt supplied the "purchase" price for the 20-acre parcel to Shannon prior to the transfer. After that transaction, Shannon sent Kuralt, at his request, a blank real estate contract so that the remaining 90 acres along the Big Hole River could be conveyed to Shannon in a similar manner. The second transaction was to take place in September 1997 when Shannon, her son and Kuralt agreed to meet at the Montana cabin.

But Kuralt became ill and was admitted to a New York hospital in June 1997. On that day he wrote Shannon a letter. He died on July 4, 1997. The bulk of his estate was in New York, but he also owned the 90 acres in Madison County, Montana. Mr. Kuralt’s widow, Suzanna "Petie" Baird Kuralt, filed a petition to probate his will in New York. A short time later she filed a petition in Montana to be the Domiciliary Foreign Personal Representative of the Estate.

Then, in the words on the Montana Supreme Court, "Kuralt’s long-time and intimate companion,

Patricia Elizabeth Shannon, filed a Petition for Ancillary Probate of Will, challenging the application of Kuralt’s New York will to the Madison County property based, in part, on a letter which she had received from Mr. Kuralt shortly before his death – a letter that this Court, in Kuralt II, determined to be a valid holographic codicil conveying the Madison County property to Shannon."

What was that? You read correctly. Kuralt wrote his mistress a letter. What did it say? It said, and I quote: "June 18, 1997 Dear Pat – Something is terribly wrong with me and they can’t figure out what. After cat-scans and a variety of cardiograms, they agree it’s not lung cancer or heart trouble or blood clot. So they’re putting me in the hospital today to concentrate on infectious diseases. I am getting worse, barely able to get out of bed, but still have high hopes for recovery … if only I can get a diagnosis! Curiouser and curiouser! I’ll keep you informed. I’ll have the lawyer visit the hospital to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in MT. if it comes to that. I send love to you & [your youngest daughter] Shannon. Hope things are better there!  Love, C. "

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was found to be a valid codicil to his will. The attorney for the surviving spouse and after she died, Kuralt’s two daughters argued that this letter merely expressed an intention to make a will and was not a will itself. Not so, held the court.

The plot thickens. The 1994 will (to which the letter was found to be a codicil) provided that all estate and inheritance taxes should be paid from the residue of the estate. The residue consists of the assets remaining after the payment of specific bequests, legacies and devises. Since the letter created a specific devise of the Montana land to Pat Shannon, the residue, which as ultimately to be inherited by the two daughters, had to pay the taxes on the property that the mistress inherited. That’s rubbing salt in the wound. Not only did the girls not get the Montana property,. but they had to pay $350,000 in taxes on it when it passed to the mistress.

What’s the moral of the story? Many, to be sure. Take a lesson from Mr. Kuralt. Consult an attorney who specializes in estate planning so that your wishes can be incorporated in a valid instrument. All communications with your lawyer, (so long as the lawyer is not jointly representing you and your spouse) are confidential. Don’t put the burden and expense of litigation on loved ones to have the Court decide what were your intentions for the disposition of your estate.


P.S.  And then there’s Ike Turner’s estate:  click here