Staking claim to an estate


“It’s my hope that the Goldman’s get zero, nothing.”

— Malcolm LaVergne, executor

“The hope for true accountability has ended.”

— Fred Goldman

Among the many considerations when an estate is opened in the probate court are weighing provisions of the will (if there is one) or the law as to how property is to be divided, determining how specific items such as cars and boats should be passed on, and dealing with claims brought against the estate by various creditors. Often those claims are small medical bills, outstanding mechanics liens, or even overdue taxes. But every once in a while, an estate faces a massive claim. Such is the case with one of the highest profile estates currently pending anywhere – the estate of O.J. Simpson, which has just been opened in Clark County, Nevada.

The full value of Simpson’s estate has not yet been publicly revealed, though an inventory will eventually need to be filed with the court. It has been revealed by his attorney that all of his assets were placed in trust earlier this year. Nevada law requires an estate to be opened if the assets are greater than $20,000, and so that estate filing is in process.

Among the claims the estate will face is the balance of the $33.5 million judgment that a civil jury awarded to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, after that jury found Simpson civilly responsible for their deaths. Several of his awards and trophies were sold to pay part of the judgment, and a book he wrote called, “If I Did It” was seized by the victims’ families and retitled, “If I Did It: Confessions of a Killer,” with the proceeds going to pay down the judgment as well.

Simpson’s long-time civil lawyer, Malcolm LaVergne, has been appointed as executor of his estate, and has told the media that he will do everything he can to prevent the Brown and Goldman families from getting anything. Ultimately, however, that’s not going to be up to him, but will be decided by the judges of Nevada’s 8th Judicial District. Whichever judge is assigned to the case will review the terms of the trust, the applicable provisions of Nevada law, and decide how to split up the assets.

It is likely that the Simpson estate will be “insolvent.” That is, that the claims against the estate will exceed the amount of money that is in it. In Ohio, we know relatively quickly whether that will be the case, because claims have to be filed within six months of the date of the decedent’s death.

If an Ohio estate is insolvent, there is a specific statute that tells the court how to divide the property. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the court gets its money first in the form of court costs and other fees. Next up is an amount, not to exceed four thousand dollars, for funeral expenses. Third is a statutory allowance of $40,000 for support to the surviving spouse or children. Fourth are “debts entitled to a preference under the laws of the United States.” Fifth are “expenses of the last sickness.” Then we’re back to funeral expenses again, with two thousand additional dollars for that purpose. Seventh are expenses of a “last continuous stay” in a nursing home. Eighth, local property taxes, Medicare recovery claims, and other debts owed to the state. Ninth, debts for manual labor that are no more than a year old and do not exceed $300.

Tenth, and last are any other debts that the estate owes. This can include any funeral expenses that have not already been paid, any manual labor debts that exceed $300, and anything else that is left. This is the category into which the Brown and Goldman civil judgments would likely fall in Ohio. Because those expenses of final sickness and final stay in a nursing home can vary from nothing up to substantial amounts (into the hundreds of thousands of dollars), it’s hard to predict what would be left at this point in an estate, and would, of course, vary widely depending on how large the estate assets were to begin with.

Prior to his death, Simpson had publically stated that he was living off of his NFL and broadcasting pensions and had few other assets. The probate process will reveal how true that was. But regardless of how Simpson’s case plays out in Nevada, it’s instructive, as it gives us good reason to examine how these kinds of cases are handled in the probate courts of Ohio.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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