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Estate Planning & Probate Specialists

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Mother, son dispute ownership of classic art collection

Disputes over inheritance can be very ugly. These fights can turn sibling against sibling, or even children against a parent.

A long-running case of probate litigation is unusual both for its ugliness and the beauty of the disputed assets, a collection of fine art. The case involves the widow of a man who was heir to a Greek shipping fortune and her son, who are arguing over the ownership of an extraordinary art collection.

The collection, which includes paintings by Matisse, Degas and El Greco, is in the possession of the widow, who keeps the uninsured artwork in a 1,000-square foot apartment. The woman was evicted from a larger apartment last year amid money troubles.

The woman’s son filed suit against her in 2016 in an effort to prevent her from selling any pieces in the collection. The son has argued that the artwork belongs to a trust, but the woman says her late husband had given the paintings to her as gifts, separate from the trust.

In the latest round of litigation, lawyers for the son argued that the paintings are at risk of damage and the collection should be moved to an auction house or other facility that is designed to store valuable artwork. A judge ruled that the woman could keep possession of the artwork, but that she would be in contempt of court if she sold any of the collection.

While the artwork in this case may be one of a kind, the broad outlines of this case are not entirely unusual in estate and probate litigation. Heirs and beneficiaries often argue over whether particular items are held in trust or by an individual. Relatives often argue that an elder is acting carelessly with property they hope one day to inherit.

These cases are legally complex and emotionally difficult. A good probate litigation attorney is knowledgeable about the law and sensitive to the personal nature of these disputes.