Business owners need an estate plan if they hope to avoid expensive family squabbles
A civil lawsuit filed in a dispute over millions of dollars in assets once owned by the late Ohio industrialist Ralph Phillips was recently voluntarily withdrawn. Brought by three of Phillips' daughters against a fourth daughter who is serving as executor of his estate, the suit centered on how assets in the estate should be divided.
Ralph Phillips was president and CEO of Phillips Manufacturing and Tower. He died in a motorcycle accident at age 65 in September 2009. His four daughters were named in his will. Angela R. Phillips Deskins, one of the daughters who was also active in his business operations, was named executor.
Four appraisers with different specialties including real estate and guns were tasked with conducting a valuation of Phillips' assets in the estate. They set the worth of the non-business-related holdings at $4.74 million in a 2010 inventory. The assets included farm equipment, properties in Knox and Huron counties and South Dakota, numerous vehicles, bank deposits, and roughly $720,000 owed to Phillips on a note from Shelby Land Company (Shelby Country Club).
The three daughters filed a civil lawsuit in 2012, claiming Deskins interfered with the estate causing them to be deprived of trust inheritances they had expected. They alleged that their sister, the executor, failed to carry out their father's wishes prior to his death to recapitalize his business assets.
The three daughters sought an order from the probate court for equal distribution of the trust portion of Phillips' holdings. These assets included stock valued at more than $16 million in various companies, according to one court document. The three sought $7 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages.
Deskins stated in court pleadings that she held officer positions within her father's companies and complied with all duties. In addition, she noted that, during his lifetime, her father rejected an estate planning proposal which her sisters claim would have affected their inheritances by recapitalizing the company so each daughter would receive a one-quarter share.
"Throughout his life, until his untimely death, Ralph Phillips remained very much in control of his companies and his plans for the disposition of his estate and those plans did not include the recapitalization of his companies," a defense brief said.
As mentioned, the moral of this story is that business owners need an estate plan that works. With one daughter in the family business and three who were not, it was not unreasonable for the estate planning attorney to warn of the problems that would arise from trying to divide these assets at the death of the business owner. These are issues for which an experienced estate planning attorney can provide solutions before a lawsuit is filed.
Reference: Mansfield (OH) News-Journal (January 4, 2016) "Court dispute over Ralph Phillips' estate withdrawn"