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Seventies beauty icon Farrah Fawcett died in June of 2009 following a terrible battle with cancer.   When someone mentions Farrah Fawcett, most people think of her wispy blonde hair and good looks… but Farrah Fawcett was far from a stereotypical blonde model when it came to finances.  She was known for renegotiating her Charlie’s Angels contract for an incredible increase in her per-episode salary (from 5k to 100k) and her financial savvy definitely came into play with merchandising.  She insisted on receiving 10% of the merchandising revenue related to the TV show, but her production company balked… so she signed her own deal for a poster – her famous red bathing suit shot – that is estimated to have sold five to six million copies!!  By the time Farrah Fawcett died from cancer in 2009, at age 62, her net worth was estimated at around $70 million.

The actress and model planned well to protect her loved ones and her troubled son, Redmond, after she passed away – she did the proper estate planning, complete with a pour-over Will and a Trust. So why are there not one, but two lawsuits over one of her assets? It all comes down to a famous Andy Warhol painting of Fawcett.  Warhol painted two silkscreen paintings of Fawcett and reportedly gave them both to her as presents.

In her trust, she provided for $4.5 million to be used for the benefit of Redmond, but in a controlled manner due to his troubles.  She created an additional fund to support her father and outright gifts to others but the bulk of Fawcett’s assets went to a charitable foundation she created to fund cancer research, with all of her artwork going to the University of Texas at Austin, her alma mater.  What about her longtime ex-boyfriend and father of her son, Ryan O’Neal?  Despite O’Neal’s contention that he and Fawcett were almost married multiple times, O’Neal was not included in her trust.  Yet that didn’t stop him from being involved in a costly inheritance fight because he claimed that the silkscreen belonged to him.

A copy of Andy Warhol’s portrait of the late beauty icon

In 1980, Andy Warhol painted a famous portrait of Farrah Fawcett.  More specifically, he created two originals.  Ryan O’Neal said Warhol approached him with the idea of the portrait, and O’Neal brought the artist and Fawcett together.  In exchange for brokering the deal, O’Neal said that Warhol made the second original painting for him to keep, which he did for almost 20 years.

What happened after that?  O’Neal said he eventually gave it back to Farrah Fawcett for safekeeping because his girlfriend at the time didn’t like seeing it in his house.  Ryan O’Neal admitted that Fawcett walked in on him and the much-younger woman in bed together and was very upset.  They later reconciled, O’Neal says, and that’s when she agreed to hold onto the second portrait for him.  Fawcett kept the painting until she died.  O’Neal removed it from her home a week or so later.

The University of Texas received a tip that O’Neal had the second Warhol portrait.  Already in possession of one of the paintings – because of the clause in Farrah Fawcett’s trust leaving all of her artwork to the school – the University then sued Ryan O’Neal for the second one too.

The litigation lasted for years, until a jury concluded (with a vote of nine to three) that the portrait really did belong to O’Neal.  His testimony swayed the jury members, more so than documents showing that Farrah Fawcett, and not O’Neal, insured the second painting and she listed herself as its owner when she loaned it to a museum.

In the end, O’Neal kept the Warhol portrait and vowed never to sell it, despite its value of around twelve million dollars.  Is this what Farrah Fawcett would have wanted?

For all of her financial smarts – including her foresight to create a well-drafted trust to handle most of her assets and protect her son – Fawcett did not clearly specify what was included in her collection of artwork that she left to the University of Texas.  Given the high value of the portrait, it would have made sense for Fawcett and her estate planning attorneys to spell out exactly what art she owned and what she intended the University to receive.

That way, it wouldn’t have taken a long and expensive court battle to settle who owned the painting.  It’s a good lesson of how important the details of an estate plan can be.  When wills and trusts are planned and prepared thoroughly, and regularly updated throughout someone’s life, then there is less chance that something will be left out or rendered unclear.

Lesson Learned:  When important details are left out of a will or trust, it often provokes a family fight – even when millions of dollars aren’t on the line.