“Getting your house in order and reducing the confusion gives you more control over your life.”
— Larry King
“It is the legitimate will, period, and I full believe it will hold up.”
— Shawn King
Larry King’s broadcasting career spanned nearly six-and-a-half decades. From his early days in Brooklyn, to radio work in Miami Beach, to a short stint as the Miami Dolphins color commentator, to a nationally syndicated radio program, to his stardom at CNN, King grew to be one of the great interviewers of American media.
He was also no stranger to the need for estate planning, the complexities of multiple layers to that plan, or the manner in which complex domestic situations can complicate it. He spoke often, in his later years, of his planning for the end of his life, and yet, upon his death in January, left a muddled situation that is ripe for lengthy and expensive litigation.
King’s father, Aaron Zeigler, and his mother, Jennie Gitlitz (“King” was Larry’s stage name), emigrated to the United States from Belarus shortly before his birth and less than a decade before the start of WWII. His father died when King was still a small child, plunging the family into poverty, and driving King away from school and into radio work.
King’s estate was relatively small at the time of his death — news reports suggest it was only about $2 million — though that may be because he had already dealt with many of his assets in a manner that would take them out of the probate process. Other sources list his net worth at nearly $50 million, suggesting that trusts, investments, predeath direct gifts, and other nonprobate assets made up the bulk of his holdings.
He was also married eight times to seven different women. He had five children (two of whom predeceased him), nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He didn’t meet his oldest child until that child was more than 30 years old. Even his most recent marriage was one that would tend to complicate estate planning, as he and his seventh wife were married in 1997, separated in 2010, filed for divorce, reconciled, and then actually did divorce in 2019.
When I have the opportunity to speak to groups or even individual people about changes to their estate plans, I always stress the same thing — openness. Litigation in estate matters most often arises because one surviving party thinks that the will or trust is going to say one thing when, in fact, it says something else, or that the will or trust once said something, but changes were made that the person doesn’t find out about until after the decedent passes away.
The latter is the situation that the King family finds themselves in. King’s wife says that they had a “watertight” estate plan that they drew up in 2015, and that despite their marriage, she and King remained friendly, and that he had never communicated any changes in the will to her. But, following his death, it was revealed that after their divorce, King amended his will, leaving his estate to his children (or their surviving heirs) and not to his most recent ex-wife. She immediately told reporters that she believed the amendment was fraudulent and that she intended to sue to uphold the 2015 will.
There are many questions that a court will have to answer in a case such as this. First and foremost, whether the 2019 amendment meets statutory criteria to be considered valid. If not, then the 2015 writing is still in effect. If the court finds that the 2019 amendments are valid, then it will take testimony on whether King was coerced into making those changes, or whether he made them voluntarily. Testimony about his mental state at that time will likely be admissible.
If King was coerced into changing his will, it would certainly explain why the changes were not communicated to others before his death. But if he did so voluntarily, and with the intent of benefiting his children, then he could have saved them substantial grief by making those changes openly, with plenty of witnesses, and communicating them to his heirs so that there were no surprises.
Those conversations would certainly have been difficult for some, but in the end, they would have saved significant time, expense and uncertainty for the people he was hoping to benefit. And that’s the lesson that must be shared, and the reason I highlight the news about his estate here. Sometimes uncomfortable conversations are also necessary, and will ease the burden for loved ones down the road.
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.