Complicated Family Dynamics
Gabrielle Vidal is often involved in high-drama estate litigation but won’t name names
Published in 2022 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine on January 20, 2022
A quick Google search reveals that Gabrielle Vidal’s trust and estate clients have included Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, in a dispute over her son’s estate; Michael Crichton’s widow, Sherri, in a clash over his will; Sumner Redstone in a case confirming his ability to execute his estate plan; and Carol Burnett, in a guardianship case.
Just don’t ask her to name names.
“They are people who are going through a really hard time, and their privacy is very important,” says Vidal, co-chair of the trust and estate litigation practice at Loeb & Loeb in Los Angeles. “I try very hard to make sure that people feel they have a protected space in which to step through whatever family issue is being litigated in the courts. … I like to hold that for my clients as kind of sacred ground.”
It’s one reason why so many celebrities turn to Vidal to untangle their estate issues.
“The key has really been relationship-building,” she says. “It’s so important to me to have relationships that are close with the clients and to also have a very respectful relationship with opposing counsel and co-counsel whenever possible. It’s a small community—a semi-small community, I would say—of people who handle the high-net-worth trust and estate litigations in Los Angeles. I’ve been fortunate to call many of them friends.”
How did she wind up in this practice area? “I took—just on a whim because a friend was taking the class—a wills and trusts class. And I fell in love with all of the backstories behind all of the cases,” she says. “I realized that there was so much in trust and estate litigation around family dynamics and high-drama events, all of which started with the backdrop of the death.
“It’s a very human practice; that’s really why I like it,” she adds.
And since it’s human, it can be thorny, as often becomes clear when someone dies. Many of her clients assume the legal wrangling they’re going through is unusual, but Vidal is quick to assure them otherwise.
“I think that there is some degree of comfort in knowing that it is more common than people would like to think: that families erupt into conflict over family wealth after there’s been a death—even families that seemingly get along.”
Vidal recommends that estate planners include no-contest clauses and other protective provisions while encouraging clients to think through sticky family situations ahead of time. And even then, there are no guarantees of smooth sailing.
“People might come out of the woodwork and file meritless litigation,” Vidal says. “There might be just a really sentimental object that takes on a whole life of its own after the conflict erupts. It might not even be a high-dollar object, but just something that is really significant for the family members, and that can really extend litigations.”
At their root, Vidal says, most estate disputes aren’t all that different when celebrities are involved.
“We’re dealing with just the very same issues that many families contend with after the death of a loved one,” she says. “Whether you are a celebrity or a person who doesn’t have that media attention, we all come from families that have complicated family dynamics.”