Anyone who’s considering writing a will should pay attention to Larry King’s estate division. Why? Because it’s a master class in all the ways that settling an estate can become complicated.
The media mogul’s recent death has led to a unique collection of problems for his family. King was in the process of divorcing his seventh wife when he died, which has left the administration of his estate in limbo. Furthermore, he left multiple wills, which make his wishes unclear. Here’s precisely how the famed interviewer’s estate got so complicated and how you can avoid the same mistakes.
The Seven Divorces of Larry King
One of the first complications in the division of his estate was his complex marital history. He was married eight times to seven different women and had or adopted children with several of them. In order, his marriages and children include:
- Freda Miller (1952-53): Annulled, no children
- Annette Kaye (1961): Divorced after less than a year after giving birth to his first son, Larry King Jr.
- Alene Akins (1961-63): Divorced after King adopted her son Andy, who passed away in 2020
- Mickey Sutphin (1964-67): Divorced after she gave birth to their daughter, Kelly
- Alene Akins (1968-71): Second marriage to Akins ended after she gave birth to their daughter, Chaia, who passed away in 2020.
- Sharon Lepore (1976-83): Divorced, no children
- Julie Alexander (1989-92): Divorced, no children
- Shawn Southwick (1997-2021): Estranged at the time of King’s death after raising two sons, Chase and Cannon. King filed for divorce from Southwick in 2019, and the divorce had yet to be finalized when he passed.
At the time of King’s death, Southwick claims they were in the process of reconciling. However, other sources suggest that may not be the case. Those sources? His first son Larry Jr. and a handwritten will allegedly created in 2019 just after King started the divorce proceedings.
The Will and What It Means
Larry Jr. is using the handwritten will, known as a holographic will, to file an emergency petition to become a special administrator for his father’s estate. As King and Southwick were still technically married at the time of his death, she would typically retain ownership of much of King’s estate. However, the holographic will specifically leaves all of his estate to his children without mention of Southwick.
Larry Jr. is using that to fight Southwick’s claim to the estate in court. His argument is that King and Southwick were separated and living unrelated lives, so the court should consider the will valid.
If Larry Jr. succeeds, then the entire family will face a complicated legal battle. All of King’s separate property would be divided among his surviving children. Half of the couple’s community property will become wholly owned by Southwick. The other half will also be divided among King’s children. The problem that arises is decided how that property is split.
Southwick is contesting Larry Jr.’s petition because the holographic will shouldn’t be admitted. She has two arguments: first, King may not have been of sound mind when he wrote the will. Second, the couple had postnuptial agreements in place limiting his ability to change his estate in favor of his children.
What Is a Holographic Will?
A holographic will is a legal document produced without the help of an attorney. It’s a handwritten, testator-signed document that explains how the testator wants their property to be divided upon their death. Only some states allow holographic wills to be used in court, including California.
California’s requirements of a holographic will include that:
- The will is legible and includes the writer’s signature and date
- It clearly expresses the testator’s intent
- The testator must be of sound mind
When all three of these elements are found, a holographic will replace another, previous document. However, suppose any one of these requirements isn’t met. In that case, the court will use a previous valid will or follow state guidelines for estates without testaments in place.
Southwick’s argument hinges on the final element. Keeping the holographic will from being admitted in the first place means that she does not have to rely on the couple’s postnuptial agreements to retain control over the couple’s estate.
Postnuptial Agreements and Wills
Postnuptial agreements can be powerful tools, so Southwick may be able to fight the will even if it is considered valid. A postnuptial agreement is a contract between a couple that’s put in place after they get married. These documents can cover all the elements that a prenuptial agreement covers, which is to say: a lot.
Postnuptial agreements are becoming a standard contract between couples in community property states like California. They can be a helpful tool to ensure that both spouses are protected when one of them dies. While the King-Southwick postnuptial agreements are not public, they could easily include clauses that prevent him from changing his estate planning without Southwick’s consent.
Postnuptial agreements aren’t quite as legally robust as prenuptial agreements. Because they’re put in place after a couple has already accrued community property, some judges will be cautious about enforcement. The legal concern is that one party may have been coerced into the agreement. However, if a postnuptial contract is legally robust, then it could absolutely prevent wills like King’s from being enforced.
Don’t Leave Things to Chance
Between his complicated marital status and his children, the King estate division was unlikely to be simple. However, with the introduction of the holographic will, it looks like the estate battle is just getting started. Whether or not the new document is considered valid, resolving the current legal petitions will take time and potentially drain the estate.
If you’re working on writing a will that will stand up in court, you should take particular precautions if you’ve ever been divorced. Reaching out to a qualified attorney can help you avoid the problems facing the Larry King estate and protect your family once you’re gone. Get your free consultation today to learn how you can write a legally robust will, even if you have a complex family.