Tom Clancy’s Estate Battle: Wording Trumps Intentions

Tom Clancy’s Estate Battle: Wording Trumps Intentions

Tom Clancy died in August of heart failure. Just 66, he left behind a huge body of work, and most of us remember him for his books and the movies they spawned, including The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games. He left behind a family, a fortune and an estate battle, but the struggle between his widow and four adult children over his $86M estate is now over. Maryland’s highest court ruled about a key clause in the codicil to Clancy’s Will, and the ruling was a decisive victory for Clancy’s widow.

Legal documents written in an unclear manner

One of the best-selling authors of all time, it’s ironic that the fight boiled down to an interpretation of a clause in his estate-planning documents that was written in an unclear manner.

The dispute centered around a provision in Clancy’s second codicil (amendment) to his Will. The Will, signed in 2007, divided Clancy’s assets into three Trusts:

  • One-third for his wife
  • Another third for his wife to use while she was alive and then onto his daughter from that marriage
  • The last third was to be split among his four adult children from a prior marriage.

Just weeks before he died, Clancy signed the codicil, which included this key sentence: “No asset or proceeds of any assets shall be included in the Marital Share of the Nonexempt Family Residuary Trust as to which a marital deduction would not be allowed if included.”

Four justices sided with the widow 

Maryland’s court was closely divided about what this language meant. The four who ruled in favor of Clancy’s widow believed that this clause meant that all estate taxes from Clancy’s Estate would have to be paid by the children’s Trust, not the Trusts containing her money, because that was the only way to fully protect the marital deduction to federal estate-tax laws.

Three justices sided with the four adult children

These justices felt that the children should only pay one-half the tax bill, not all of it, and this clause did not alter the outcome. They felt that Clancy wanted to protect the marital deduction but not to increase it at the expense of what his children would inherit.

Interestingly, the lawyer who drafted the codicil initially acted as executor of Tom Clancy’s estate, and he sided with the children. This suggests that the language was intended to apply as the children contended, yet the law isn’t about intentions, but what the documents actually say.

What does this mean for Tom Clancy’s heirs?

The four children now have to pay the IRS estate tax bill of almost $12M. If they’d won, the total tax bill would have been closer to $16M, but they would have been able to split it with one of the Trusts set up for Clancy’s widow. The results: they lost $8M, and the IRS lost out on $4M.

A strange irony for a writer

A loss of $8M for Clancy’s adult children, two years’ worth of litigation and who knows how much money in legal fees. And it all would have been avoided if the language had been more clear.

Take a lesson from Tom Clancy: wording trumps intentions

The wording of your estate-planning documents is what matters, not your intentions. While most of us, unfortunately, don’t have $86M estates over which our heirs will haggle, battles like this occur on a regular basis across the country. Make sure all of your assets are accounted for; read your documents carefully; understand what everything means before signing.

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