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“Inartfully Drafted” Will Leads To $500,000 Estate Tax Dispute

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Lawyers’ clients often complain about the language of the law—it seems unnecessarily strained and convoluted. Even as lawyers try to capture their meaning in more conversational tones, an occasional case will demonstrate the importance of precise language. Kenneth Starkey, whose will was written by his lawyer son, is an illustration of that point.

Weeks before his death Mr. Starkey asked his son for help in drafting a new will. He wanted some of his estate to go to educational funds for his grandchildren, but he also wanted to leave a considerable portion of the estate to charity. This would not only permit his accumulated wealth to finance good works, but also would reduce the estate tax liability due upon his death.

Mr. Starkey particularly favored Lawndale Community Church in Chicago, Illinois, where Pastor Wayne Gordon was (and apparently still is) Director, and Milligan College in Tennessee, a small Christian liberal arts school. His will included a trust which would ultimately be valued at about $1.3 million, and which paid half of its income to Lawndale Community Church, so long as Pastor Gordon remained as Director. The remaining income of the trust, and the principal itself after Pastor Gordon’s retirement, was to be maintained “for the benefit of [Lawndale], missionaries preaching the Gospel of Christ, and Milligan College.”

While that language may look like a charitable bequest, the Internal Revenue Service disagreed. It read the trust’s terms as creating three intended beneficiaries: Lawndale Community Church, Milligan College and a group of unspecified missionaries. The estate argued in vain that “missionaries preaching the Gospel of Christ” was just a description of Lawndale Community Church’s well-known work in the missionary field.

The significance of this linguistic dispute was not minor. If the IRS interpretation was correct, Mr. Starkey’s estate owed an additional $520,178 in estate taxes. To help interpret the questioned phrase, the estate brought an action in Indiana’s probate court, had the court appoint an attorney to represent the unspecified “missionaries preaching the Gospel of Christ,” and secured an Indiana Court of Appeals ruling that the questioned phrase merely described Lawndale Community Church.

The IRS still insisted that the tax was owed, and so the estate paid the tax and appealed the IRS’ interpretation to the federal courts. The Indiana Federal District Court sided with the IRS and denied the estate’s request for a refund. The estate pressed on, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling that Mr. Starkey’s charitable intent was clear and the tax was not owed. Estate of Starkey v. United States, August 17, 2000.

Ultimately Mr. Starkey’s charitable intent was vindicated in the courts, but not until four different courts (two Indiana State courts and two Federal courts) had considered the meaning of the disputed phrase. The cost of securing the favorable tax treatment is unreported, but was probably itself significant.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.