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Death of tycoon leads to extensive probate litigation battle

Californians who die without wills may have their estates probated after they die. As the death of Texas tycoon James Cotter demonstrates, the probate process may be very complex and heavily litigated when people leave behind large estates without wills.

Cotter died at age 83 in January 2017 without a will. Since his death, his wife, five children, the IRS, his creditors and multiple lenders have engaged in substantial probate litigation over how his estate should be handled. Cotter owned a vast empire of properties in multiple states, and several properties have been forced into bankruptcy since his death. Before his death, his assets were valued at $287.9 million. Of that amount, all but $41 million of his assets were in his 66 properties. He listed $181.7 million in liabilities prior to his death.

After he died, his books were found to be in disarray and reportedly hadn't been reconciled for years. Cotter's Texas assets were valued at $54 million, but the amount doesn't include the value of the properties that he owned in other states. Those assets are valued at $69 million. The biggest creditor is Loma Linda University in California, which is owed $42 million in secured debts.

After people die without wills, their estates may undergo the probate process. Even if they do have wills in place, interested parties may challenge the wills and engage in probate litigation. People who have probate issues may want to talk to experienced probate litigation lawyers. Attorneys may be able to help their clients challenge wills that are invalid or defend against the challenges to valid wills. They may represent their clients' interests through the probate litigation process in an effort to protect them.

Source: The News Tribune, "Death of Texas tycoon James Cotter leads to estate issues," Patrick Danner, June 12, 2018.

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