Poor families are alike – to crib from Tolstoy; but every backbiting, conniving rich family is backbiting, conniving and rich in its own way.
Michael Jackson's body has not yet been put in the ground and already family members and executors of his will are in court wrangling over his estate.
For the rich and famous disputing a will or battling a family member in probate court can be as much a part of the lifestyle as champagne and caviar.
(To skip ahead to any estate mess in this story, click on these links: Michael Jackson, Steve McNair, James Brown, Anna Nicole Smith, Jimi Henrdix, Jerry Garcia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Brooke Astor, Michael Crichton, Tom Carvel, Marlon Brando.)
Jackson's death, like that of former quarterback Steve McNair, shines a light on what happens when rich people die and their family members have different ideas on how the deceased's money should be distributed.
Each man took different approaches to planning their estates – Jackson had a will, McNair did not. But in both cases, family members want what they believe is theirs.
Though Jackson and McNair's cases might be two of the most recent examples of families potentially torn asunder by greed and envy, they certainly are not the first.
The following list is a survey of some of the nastiest family feuds in recent memory. Sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandsons and granddaughters, and not to mention a handful of scorned ex-wives, embittered executors and hapless hangers-on each looking for piece of the pie.
For lawyers, much of these disputes can be mitigated with a good old fashioned will and some forward thinking.
"The things that give rise to disputes generally are: who is in charge of the estate, and whether there are young kids involved, whose guardianship is involved and who gets the money," said Andy Katzenstein, an estate planning lawyer based in Los Angeles. "You see that in large and small estates. In larger estates there is more to fight over, but it isn't necessarily how much is at stake that makes people fight."
Ambiguity in important documents can also fuel family feuds, Katzenstein said.
"It's easier if there's a discussion about aspects of the plan that might be controversial so that a dispute is diffused beforehand," he said. "That way, there isn't a surprise. Everyone's clear that that's exactly what the person wanted."
A will should be revised whenever there is a significant change in an individual's life, such as marriage or birth of a child, if not every three or four years, Katzenstein said. Failing to do so can result in a document that does not accurately convey an individual's wishes.
Nearly one month since Michael Jackson died, his family members and the executors of his will are engaged in a delicate legal dance as each party sizes up the other and awaits their day in court.
On July 17, Jackson's 79-year-old mother Katherine asked a judge to give her the option of challenging the authority of the executors Jackson named in his will: attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain.
It is a risky move on Katherine's part. The late pop star's will includes a "no contest" clause that disinherits any beneficiary who challenges the will and loses.