In creating an estate plan, many hope to preserve their own wishes, avoid future feuds between loved ones and more. However, even those with meticulously planned estates throughout Minnesota may fail to avoid a future dispute without clear, precise language.

Late singer-songwriter Tom Petty’s estate emphasizes this point. Petty passed away in October of 2017. Tension over the terms of the estate has built between his widow and two daughters, with each recently filing lawsuits against the other alleging the mismanagement of Petty’s wishes.

The terms of the trust

Petty created a living trust to spell out his wishes. The trust serves to ultimately benefit his widow, Dana York Petty, and two daughters from a previous marriage, Adria Petty and Annakim Violette. The terms of the trust gave each individual equal participation to make key decisions about the estate.

Petty’s most valuable assets include his intellectual property rights. Since Petty’s death, the three family members have filed multiple court proceedings seeking to gain control. Forbes reports that Dana accuses both daughters of “abusive and erratic” behavior, as well as attempting to freeze her out of key decisions. The two daughters in return accused Dana of attempting to deprive them of assets. They seek $5 million in damages.

Why the wording is problematic

The wording of the trust is at the center of the ongoing dispute. The trust appointed Dana as sole trustee. However, the terms directed her to form a new limited liability company (LLC) to manage the artistic properties. Within the LLC, the trust states that Dana, Adria and Annakim each “participate equally” in managing the entity.

While the two daughters interpret the wording as each getting a vote on decisions, Dana instead believes that a professional should manage the LLC. Dana states that the daughters have attempted to “rule by majority,” yet because she is the trustee, she believes she gets the final say.

Petty likely had well-meaning intentions. However, Barron’s states that “equal participation” is just vague enough to validate both arguments. In any estate document, clear, precise wording is necessary to prevent misinterpretation. Clarifying whether he meant majority rules or Dana’s opinion carries the most weight could have avoided this costly legal battle.

In planning your own estate, carefully select your wording. For those with blended families, consider communicating with your loved ones in advance to help clarify your wishes and prevent future disputes.