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Dispute over film illustrates problem with high-profile estates

Lawyers for the estate of the late pop sensation Michael Jackson seemed reasonably confident in an initial victory in their legal dispute with HBO.

This probate litigation arose after the estate heard that HBO was planning a film that portrayed Jackson in a negative light.

The estate relied on an agreement between HBO and Jackson, which was over 25 years old, in which HBO promised not to disparage Jackson or take steps to diminish Jackson's esteem in the public eye.

What is at issue is that the agreement also required the parties to arbitrate disputes. HBO has been fighting against this clause in the contract and also had the pending litigation moved to federal court. The federal judge hearing the case recently indicated that he was likely to rule in favor of Jackson's estate and force the arbitration, but he also said that a written decision would be forthcoming.

The point that this and other stories that hit the news illustrate is that probate litigation is not always just about family members fighting with each other over an estate. Sometimes, the probate process can get held up when the estate has a legal claim against another person or business.

In high-profile cases involving wealthy New Jersey decedents, an estate may hold legal claims worth thousands of not millions of dollars, all of which the personal representative has at least some obligation to pursue on behalf of the heirs. On the flip side, as the case of deceased, disgraced millionaire Jeffrey Epstein shows, sometimes an estate may be facing heavy liabilities.

Whatever the case, sometimes an estate will need legal help either defending against or pursuing legal claims that may have arisen while the deceased was still alive.

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