Surprise beneficiary of $1-billion estate sparks potential litigation

Unexpected beneficiaries are a recipe for estate litigation, as the simmering dispute over a publishing magnate’s $1-billion estate shows. 

Following his death this summer, it was revealed that Richard Robinson, the owner of Scholastic – the publishing juggernaut known by any parent of elementary-age children – left control of the company and all of his possessions to his romantic partner, a high-level Scholastic employee. 

According to the Montreal Gazette, the 84-year-old’s 2018 will described his sole beneficiary, Scholastic’s chief strategy officer Iole Lucchese, as “my partner and closest friend.”

Despite his advanced age, Robinson’s recent death seems to have caught everyone by surprise, since he was apparently in good health and still active as chairman and chief executive of the company, which secured the U.S. rights to the Harry Potter books and launched popular series including The Magic School Bus, The Baby-sitters Club, and Goosebumps during his 47-year tenure. 

But nobody was as shocked as Robinson’s ex-wife and their two grown-up children: one of their sons told reporters the contents of his father’s will were “salt in an open wound,” while the other described them as “unexpected and shocking.”

“You might think from the will that he didn’t see his sons. That’s not true. For the last two years, I saw him multiple times a week,” he added.

Few of my clients are as wealthy as Robinson, but I’ve learned in my years of practice that it doesn’t take a huge sum of money to spark a legal dispute over a loved one’s assets. Bruised egos and hurt feelings are often the biggest drivers of estate litigation, whatever the dollar amount involved.  

I’ve seen too many families ripped at the seams over arguments about who got more or less than they were supposed to, while the extra layer of emotional complexity that comes with a blended family arrangement only tends to lower the threshold for disagreements.

However, testators can often take the sting out of the situation by giving beneficiaries an idea of what they can expect from a will ahead of time. Even if it’s less than they had hoped, setting realistic expectations can help things run smoother when the time comes for estate administration.

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