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Paul Romano
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What will happen with Heath Ledger's $20M+ estate?

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Heath Ledger, star of the recent Batman film the Dark Knight who died of an accidental drug overdose on January 22, 2008, left an estate that may top $20M after proceeds of his most recent hit movie finish pouring in. In 2003, Ledger executed a will in his home country of Australia in which he put the bulk of his estate into a trust for the benefit of his parents, Kim Ledger and Sally Bell, and his three sisters. Although the fallen star left his testamentary wishes absolutely clear and in writing, there is still some controversy over who should be entitled to Ledger’s estate.

The dispute lies in the fact that subsequent to signing his will, Ledger fathered a child, Matilda, with his then girlfriend, actress Michelle Williams. Although the general rule in all of the United States is that a person may disinherit anyone he likes, including his children, most states in America, including New York where Ledger died, have laws against the accidental disinheritance of a child. Generally, the law presumes that an after-born child who is not mentioned in a will that was signed before the birth of the child would have been included as a beneficiary if the deceased person had taken the time to update their testamentary wishes. If the facts to this point in my blog constituted the entirety of the story, then under New York law, Matilda would be entitled to Ledger’s entire estate in spite of the movie star’s 2003 will directing otherwise. But, of course, the story does not end there.

It seems that there are rumors that a young Heath Ledger may have fathered another child when he was age 16 with an older woman when he lived in Australia. This rumor, as far as I can tell, has not yet been confirmed. However, if rumors of a second child are true, Matilda’s claim to her father’s estate may be in jeopardy. Although the law generally favors a child disinherited by a will signed before the child’s birth, the presumption in favor of that child disappears if the testator (the person who signed the will) had another child at the time the will was signed who was also disinherited. The theory is that if the testator disinherited the child who was living at the time the will was signed then he would also have disinherited any afterborn children as well. Additionally, it would not matter, as in this case, that the testator may have had no knowledge of the other child’s existence when the will was executed. The law would presume that Ledger knew he had a child and intentionally disinherited that child, and no evidence to the contrary may be admitted to prove otherwise.

At this point, Ledger’s parents have proclaimed their intention to “take care of” Matilda; however, two of Ledger’s uncles have questioned the sincerity of their brother Kim Ledger’s generosity. The uncles claim that Kim Ledger mismanaged their father’s estate and should not be trusted to properly manage his son’s estate on Matilda’s behalf.

I will keep you updated as the story progresses.