The litigation over the will of Ernie Banks is a perfect example of why you should set up an estate plan well before your mental health becomes questionable, especially if you have a large estate and you plan to disinherit your entire family. A will contest (where someone files a lawsuit claiming the will is invalid) is more likely when a lot of money is on the line or someone is likely to feel shorted. In these circumstances, be extra sure to make your will bullet proof.
Ernie Banks’ will leaves his entire estate to his caretaker, Regina Rice. His wife, from whom he was “estranged” and apparently getting a divorce, and his children, were left nothing. His wife is, of course, challenging this in court. She has filed a claim in Cook County Probate Court, alleging exactly what many people are speculating – that the caretaker tricked him into leaving her everything. It’s a classic fact pattern, which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily true. Only time will tell, maybe…
Obviously, the best source for getting the truth is Ernie Banks himself. But since that’s not an option, the court will try to determine whether he was mentally competent at the time he signed his will. If he wasn’t, then it will likely be voided. They will look at his medical records, especially on and around the day he signed the will. Witnesses will be key, especially those who signed the will as official witnesses. Even if he was having moments of dementia, as long as there were also moments of sanity, then it’s possible that he could have had a lucid moment when he signed his will. So in order to void the will, his wife will have to show that he was so mentally ill that he couldn’t have had a moment in which he knew what he was doing.
Lawyers usually take these cases on contingency, meaning that there is no fee unless they win the case. If you plan to contest a will of a family member, don’t go it alone. It might seem like a private/personal matter, but it’s a civil lawsuit, with rules of court, rules of procedure and rules of evidence. If the will is voided, then the court will handle his estate as if he had no will. Under Illinois law, this means that half goes to his wife (they weren’t yet divorced) and half goes to his children. But it will likely be a long time before the case is decided. Which brings us to back to the main point – if you wait until you have serious health problems before making a will, then you could be setting your family up for a big headache.
Another lesson to take from this is to look after your older family members and make sure they are in good hands. The Ernie Banks case certainly looks like the classic elder abuse situation, in which an older/ailing person lets someone into their life and then gets convinced to leave them their estate. Of course, not every caretaker who becomes an heir is a con artist. Sometimes a caretaker is very deserving of the inheritance they are given and it is given completely voluntarily and without pressure. I honestly have no idea which category this Ernie Banks thing falls into, but either way, there are lessons here for all of us. He was famous, but this kind of thing happens to regular people all the time.
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