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Probate dispute continues over disposition of Kinkade's estate

Some Houston followers of the world of contemporary art may have heard of Thomas Kinkade's death two months ago. The painter achieved renown for his popular and commercially successful depictions of whimsical country scenes. He opened businesses to reproduce his artwork, generating many millions of dollars during his life and leaving an estate valued at $66.3 million at the time of his death.

But the probate process surrounding Kinkade's will has hardly been as peaceful as one of his paintings. His girlfriend and the wife from whom he was separated are locked in a will contest, arguing over the proper administration of his estate. Although there are many issues in play in this case, one of the central disputes concerns the authenticity of two handwritten notes that purport to bequeath significant assets to Kinkade's girlfriend.

The notes were written in late 2011, just months before the artist's death. In difficult to read script, they claim to give Kinkade's home and a $10 million gift to his girlfriend. The cash, one note explains, is intended for the creation of an art gallery in the painter's name. Kinkade's wife, however, has said that the notes are the girlfriend's attempt to wrongfully take assets that should go to his heirs.

Probate disputes are not new. Over the centuries, English common law developed principles to determine whether a will and subsequent amendments were valid. In fact, the word probate comes from the Latin for "to prove." Our legal system inherited many of those precepts, which continue to undergo modifications to this day.

One of the principal aims of probate is to uncover and effectuate the deceased person's intent regarding the disposition of property. Probate courts, however, also have to guard against spurious documents claiming to represent that intent. Whether the notes truly constitute Kinkade's wishes could be determined in July at the next scheduled court hearing.

Source: Associated Press, "Dispute over Thomas Kinkade's will heads to court," June 13, 2012.

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