Probate Games

Lansing Palmer makes a novel argument in the dispute over Tom Clancy’s estate

Published in 2017 New York Metro Super Lawyers — October 2017

When Tom Clancy, the best-selling author of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, died in 2013, he left behind an estate worth $83 million. In addition to the intellectual property rights to his blockbuster novels and the films based on them, Clancy’s fortune included an eclectic assortment of assets: a home on a 535-acre property in Maryland; a home on Martha’s Vineyard; a 12 percent ownership stake in the Baltimore Orioles; and a collection of rare handguns and weaponry—including an actual World War II-era tank. 

The estate was split between two groups of beneficiaries: the author’s second wife, Alexandra Clancy; and the four adult children of his first wife, whom Clancy divorced in 1999. But the addition of a codicil to the will led to a bitter two-year legal dispute over who would be responsible for paying the estate’s hefty tax bill. 

Lansing Palmer, a trust and estate litigator at Akerman, led the team representing Clancy’s widow. He’s seen his share of high-profile cases. In 1979 he was involved with the estate of composer Igor Stravinsky, and in 1993 he was co-counsel in a legal malpractice case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. (He won, 5-4.) The Clancy case was of particular personal interest to Palmer, a former lieutenant commander and JAG attorney in the Navy. 

“I’ve read every one of his books,” he says. “I was a fan from the early days.”

At the center of the case was the codicil drafted in July 2013, when Clancy was ill but of sound mind. This amendment, written by Clancy’s attorney at the time, was intended to qualify the trust for both Alexandra Clancy and her daughter, who is still a minor, for the IRS marital deduction upon Clancy’s death. But it confused matters. 

“The courts and commentators have described this codicil variously as inartful and sloppy,” Palmer says. “We don’t disagree with those characterizations.”

The knotty legal problem stemmed from interpretation of the codicil’s savings clause. The way it was worded, the supplement failed to adequately shift the tax burden off of the family trust. “[The original lawyer] qualified the family trust for the marital deduction,” says Palmer, “but he did not amend another portion of the original will that would have exonerated the family trust expressly from contributing to the payment of tax.” As a result, the trust for Alexandra and her daughter would have been subject to nearly $6 million in extra tax.

The savings clause turned out to be what saved the day. According to Palmer, the case hinged on wording that prohibited the executor and legal representative from doing anything to limit the marital deduction. The document states: “...nor shall any payment by my personal representative be such that my estate would be prevented from receiving the benefit of the marital deduction.”

In August 2016, the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with that interpretation, 4-3. As a result, the tax burden, an estimated $12 million, fell exclusively to the trusts, of which the four children are beneficiaries.

“It was a rather unique argument,” Palmer says, admitting that the 4-3 split highlighted the sharp disagreement over the interpretation of the language. 

Palmer feels the case could have been avoided. “By creating confusion, [the codicil] pitted beneficiaries against each other—in this case the widow against the lawyer who drafted it—to a point where lots of legal fees were expended and ill will was engendered where it didn’t have to be,” he says. 

During his 40 years litigating estates, he’s observed more than his share of such drama. “It’s often not over money,” he says, “but what someone didn’t get from the dinner table at the age of nine.”

 


 

Lansing Palmer’s Top Three Tom Clancy Novels

The Hunt for Red October (1984) The gold standard. Specific details about a fictional Soviet submarine are especially addictive for fans of military hardware.

 

The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) A classic Jack Ryan thriller about a sleeper spy working deep inside KGB headquarters. 

 

The Bear and the Dragon (2000) Well-written post-Cold War military thriller involving an imagined conflict between Russia and China.

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