Sometimes probate is all about trying to figure out the deceased’s wishes. Sometimes people aren’t all that clear with instructions, or identifying an asset, or a hundred other things. Then, it’s up to the probate judge to try to figure it all out – with or without help. That’s tough enough, but, of course, it’s made worse – sometimes infinitely worse – when a beneficiary questions the judge’s interpretation and … sues.
Things can get messy, costly, and drag out for years. Take, for example, the estate of the man who showed us where the wild things are, Maurice Sendak. He was a terrific illustrator and storyteller and has been read by generations. He was also a prodigious book collector.
He apparently collected rare books for most of his adult life. In the 1960’s he started a life-long relationship with Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library. He loaned them books from his collection and gave them his papers, drawings, manuscripts and more. At the time of his death in 2012, he had loaned the Rosenbach over 10,000 items, most of those items were there for decades.
His will left the bulk of his collection to his foundation to eventually be held in a museum/library in his hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut. That museum has not only not been built yet, it isn’t even in the planning stages. He left the Rosenbach his rare book collection. Which is vast and includes original works by Herman Melville and Henry James; a collection of letters from, among others, Mozart, the Brothers Grimm, and Melville; and much more. Most notably, it also includes two illuminated books by the poet-painter William Blake (of Red Dragon fame).
No problem right? Well, no, not to the Rosenbach and not to the executors. There were a few arguments between the two parties, but nothing that didn’t seem like it could be worked out. Until it came to the rare books. ‘Rare book’ was not defined anywhere in any of Sendak’s testamentary documents.
‘Rare book’ is in the eye of the beholder and the executors and the museum did not agree. Especially over the Blake books. They are certainly rare, there are few of them out there and they are valued in the millions. The estate, however, claimed that they weren’t books – they were a portfolio of illustrations. Bound like a book. The Rosenbach said that the books were, well books, and that the executors just wanted to sell them “to raise money to pursue other purposes they prefer over adherence to Mr. Sendak’s directives, including to pay themselves executors’ fees, legal fees, and fees for serving as directors of Mr. Sendak’s foundation.”
There’s more, of course. It wasn’t settled until a few weeks ago.
A few simple words, a probate brought to a standstill, no one will ever know if Maurice Sendak’s real wishes were upheld.