Michael Crichton, the author of the science fiction thrillers The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park that became Hollywood blockbusters, left behind the makings of another kind of movie when he died on Nov. 4, 2008 at age 66.
In this drama, a famous, wealthy man dies and, four and half months later, his fifth wife gives birth to a son. But this child isn't mentioned in dad's will. So the child's mother gears up to battle a host of beneficiaries to secure the posthumous son's inheritance.
Crichton was married five times, and his will, filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court on Jan. 26, 2009, makes clear in the first paragraph that he “intentionally omitted to provide” for his previous four wives.
Sherri Alexander Crichton, his wife at his death, signed a prenuptial agreement in April 2005 that Crichton, in his will, directs his executor to be bound by.
But apparently Sherri was about four months pregnant at the time of Crichton's death. And, although the Crichton family issued a statement announcing that the author “died unexpectedly” after “a courageous and private battle against cancer,” the kind of cancer, the length of that battle, and whether he knew of his wife's pregnancy remain a mystery.
All we do know is that on March 2, 2009, Sherri's lawyers filed a petition for guardianship of the estate of John Michael Todd Crichton. According to the petition, young John was born to Sherri on Feb. 12, 2009. The guardianship petition describes him as an “omitted child.” It notes that Sherri intends to prosecute a claim alleging that little John is entitled the share of Crichton's estate that he would have received had Crichton died intestate: one third of his separate property.
There are no public records on the size of the estate, but given Crichton's prolific work in entertainment — a doctor by training, he created the hit T.V. series ER — hundreds of millions of dollars are likely at stake.
All of Crichton's assets were left in trust. The probate petition cites a long list of trust beneficiaries. Among them is Taylor Anne Crichton, Crichton's daughter from another marriage, who turned 20 on Jan. 26, 2009. About two dozen other individuals, family and friends, as well as the John Michael Crichton Family Foundation Inc., also received notice.
The will itself is opaque in how Crichton meant to devise his wealth, because it's a “pour-over” leaving the residue of his estate to the John Michael Crichton Trust, a living trust Crichton created in May 1998, and amended three times as of the will's signing on Oct. 3, 2007.
Of course, this trust need not be a public document. (Privacy is usually one of such trusts' goals.)
Indeed, the probating of the will “is really quite a formality, for any assets outside of the trust” such as a recently purchased car or opened bank account, says Alan Yoshitake, head of the trusts and estates group at the Los Angeles office of Seyfarth Shaw. “The main significance of this probate is really to nominate who's going to be in charge.”
Sherri Crichton and Kimberly Crichton (the author's sister, a lawyer in Washington. D.C.) are among the executors of Crichton's will and the assets in the estate. But, as Yoshitake notes, “There are really no assets in this estate; it's all in the trust.”
The only mention made of a child in Crichton's will is this: He states, “I have one (1) child.” That's Taylor, a daughter from his marriage to Anne-Marie Martin, Crichton's fourth wife, an actress who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film “Twister” with him, and with whom he reached a divorce settlement in 2003.
In a provision under the heading, “incontestability,” the will states: “I have intentionally made no provision in this Will for any of my heirs or relatives who are not herein mentioned or designated, and I hereby generally and specifically disinherit every person claiming to be or who may be determined to be my heir-at-law, except as otherwise mentioned in this Will.”
Where does this leave young John's claim?
Sherri has turned to Adam Streisand of the Los Angeles office of Loeb & Loeb, a trial lawyer renowned for courtroom victories for children and heirs against estates of celebrities such as Ray Charles and Marlon Brando. Streisand did not return several calls for comment.
The fact that Sherri has turned to a high-profile litigator suggests she may be gearing up for a courtroom battle to contest the will's language on heirs. But the lawyer who filed the probate petition — Burton Mitchell of L.A.'s Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro — also did not return calls. And all this silence suggests that maybe, just maybe, a resolution among the parties is at hand.
A fight should be unnecessary, according to several California lawyers who specialize in trusts and estates.
California, like many other jurisdictions, has a statute establishing the rights of an “omitted child.” It's meant to rectify just this situation, says Kenneth S. Wolf of L.A.'s Hoffman, Sabban & Watenmaker. The California law provides for a child when “a decedent fails to provide in a testamentary instrument for a child of decedent born or adopted after the execution” of the documents in the estate plan.1 “That is why the statute is there,” says Wolf. “In order to leave your kid out, you have to consciously make that decision.”
The “incontestability” clause in Crichton's 2007 will, says Wolf, is “a fairly standard clause” that won't block young John from receiving his share under the omitted child statute. He says it “doesn't rise” to an “intentional” failure to provide for the child, one of three circumstances for “denial” of the child's share under the statute.2
Yoshitake described the language as “kind of a beefed up no contest clause.” But he too said he was “pretty confident that it is not going to have any application” to block the infant from taking his share.
At any rate, the child has nothing to lose by challenging the will. “The no contest clause is only useful if you are threatening to take something away,” says Susan House of Hahn & Hahn in Pasadena, Ca.. Clearly, this child has nothing to lose, because he's not in the will. “Here we have someone who was not even alive at the time the will was executed, and that is in fact the whole point,” House says.
In fact, the California law at one time allowed any living child not specifically mentioned in the will, whether born before or after it was signed, to take under the estate. It was narrowed to apply to after-born (or later adopted) children in 1985.
Ironically, had Adam Streisand, Sherri's lawyer, drafted Crichton's will, young John's hopes might have been dashed. In a November 2007 article for The Hollywood Reporter, called “Nine things entertainment lawyers should know about probate,” Streisand observed: “Celebrities tend to be prolific in all things, including having children out of wedlock.” To avoid heirs claiming their share as omitted children, Streisand wrote, a will or trust should “very specifically” indicate a “clear intention” not to provide for any child not named, “no matter when that child may be born (before or after the execution of the document.)”
Crichton's will makes no such provision, and, House, for one, says she could see “public policy arguments” against that kind of language.
The will does note that Crichton would disinherit any person making a claim under “common-law marriage,” the theory in Marvin v. Marvin, the 1976 case brought by actor Lee Marvin's live-in girlfriend, seeking rights to his property.
It seems the drafters of Crichton's will envisioned many possible scenarios — except the one that actually occurred: another proof, possibly, that truth is often stranger than fiction.
- California Probate Code Section 21620.
Karen Donovan is a journalist based in Cape Cod, Mass.