If you have seen the Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, you can attest that it is one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on several critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.
Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary. And we will offer lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.
While the documentary’s dark, twisted plot is far too complicated to fully summarize, it focuses primarily on the bitter rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. They are both owners and breeders of big cats. Joe, the self-professed “Tiger King,” whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, runs a roadside zoo in Oklahoma filled with more than a hundred tigers, lions, and other assorted animals.
Carole is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a Florida-based sanctuary for big cats rescued from captivity. As an avid animal rights activist, Carole goes on a public crusade against Joe. She is seeking to have his zoo shut down, claiming that he exploits, abuses, and kills the animals under his care.
In retaliation, Joe launches an extensive media campaign of his own against Carole. Joe accuses Carole of murdering her late husband, millionaire Don Lewis, and feeding his remains to her tigers. The feud between Joe and Carole goes on for decades, and it ultimately peaks after Carole wins a million-dollar trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe.
The legal fees and impending judgment from the lawsuit nearly bankrupt Joe, eventually pushing him to hire someone to kill Carole. However, instead of killing Carole, that individual goes to the FBI and informs them of Joe’s murderous plot. Joe is ultimately arrested for hiring a hitman to kill Carole, along with multiple animal abuse charges, and he’s sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.
The clash between Joe and Carole takes center stage. It exposes key estate planning concerns related to business ownership and asset protection, which we’ll cover a little later. But Carol’s late husband, Don Lewis, makes the most egregious planning errors. In fact, the full extent of duplicity and damage related to these mistakes isn’t even uncovered by the documentary, and have only recently come to light following renewed public interest in the case sparked by the show.
What’s more, because the fallout from Don’s poor planning has tragic results for the loved ones he was seeking to protect with his estate plan, we’ll discuss Don’s planning mishaps first.
Don, a fellow big-cat enthusiast who helped Baskin start Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997 and hasn’t been seen since. After having him declared legally dead in 2002, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will. It left her nearly his entire estate — estimated to be worth $6 million — and left his daughters from a previous marriage just 10% of his assets.
Not only was Carole listed as Don’s executor in the will she presented, but she also produced a document in which Don granted her power of attorney. However, the planning documents Carole produced were deemed suspicious by multiple people who were close to Don for many reasons.
Don’s daughters and his first wife claim that Don and Carole were having serious marital problems before he disappeared and that Don was planning to divorce Carole. As evidence of this, we learn that Don sought a restraining order against Carole just two months before he vanished, in which he alleges Carole threatened to kill him. A judge denied the restraining order, saying there was “no immediate threat of violence.”
Don’s daughters also claim that around the time the restraining order was filed, their father created a will that left the vast majority of his estate to them. They claim he did so to minimize any claims Carole might have to his property should he pass away. Furthermore, Anne McQueen, Don’s administrative assistant, said Don gave her an envelope containing his new will and a power of attorney before he disappeared. Anne alleges that Don named her as his executor and power of attorney agent, not Carole.
Anne said Don told her to take the envelope to the police if anything should happen to him. According to Anne, the envelope with Don’s planning documents was kept in a lockbox in Don’s office. Still, she claims Carole broke into the office and took the documents 10 days after Don disappeared. At the time, Anne was being interviewed by detectives when she received a call from the alarm company, letting her know that the alarm in Don’s office had been triggered.
When police arrived, they found Carole removing files from the trailer that served as Lewis’ office. She was being helped by her father and Don’s handyman. The handyman had cut the locks, and according to Anne, this was because Carole didn’t have a key. Later that day, Carole had the entire trailer hauled to the grounds of the big cat sanctuary.
Anne told detectives that Carole removed the trailer and its contents to destroy his planning documents stored in the lockbox. From there, Anne believes Carole forged the will and power of attorney she ultimately presented to the court.
Carole vehemently denied all of these claims. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Carole said she moved the office trailer because her father claimed he saw Anne removing files from it a day earlier. Carole also insisted she never threatened Don’s life, and that he disappeared on one of his many trips to Costa Rica. She further claims that Don sought to disinherit his children in his will, and it was only at Carole’s suggestion that Don left them anything at all.
Although law enforcement investigated Don’s disappearance, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the investigation failed to uncover any physical evidence. He said it uncovered only a conflicting series of stories and dead ends. In light of this, Don’s estate passed through probate in 2002. His assets were distributed according to the terms of the will Carole presented. Carole received the bulk of Don’s $6-million estate, and Don’s daughters received just a small fraction of his assets.
There is more to the story surrounding Don’s planning documents and Carole’s suspicious actions. But first, let’s look at the planning mistakes Don made and how they could have been easily prevented.
Lesson 1: Always work with an experienced estate planning lawyer when creating or updating your planning documents, especially if you have a blended family.
If Don’s children and assistant are correct, that Don disinherited Carole and left the bulk of his estate to his daughters in a new will, it seems he did so without the assistance of an attorney. This was his first big mistake.
There are many DIY estate planning websites that allow you to create various planning documents within minutes for relatively little expense. Yet, as we can see here, DIY estate planning does not protect the integrity of your documents. In the end — and when it’s too late — taking the DIY route can cost your family far more than not creating any plan at all.
Even if you think your particular planning situation is simple, that rarely turns out to be the case. As we covered in a previous article, there are several complications inherent to DIY estate plans that can cause them to be ruled invalid by a court, creating unnecessary conflict and expense for the people you are trying to protect with your plan.
It is always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents. Still, it is exponentially true when you have a blended family like Don’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage or have children from a prior relationship, there’s an inherent risk of dispute. Disputes arise because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there’s significant wealth at stake.
The risk for conflict is significantly increased if you are seeking to disinherit or favor one part of your family over another, as Don was claimed to have done with Carole. In fact, Florida law prevents one spouse from completely disinheriting the other in their estate plan. Unless Don was aware of this fact when he cut Carole out of his will, she would still be entitled to one-third of his assets upon his death, no matter what his will stipulated.
By creating your own plan, even with the help of a DIY service, you won’t be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all potential legal and family conflicts. However, we are specially trained to predict and prevent such conflicts. Our unique planning process can actually help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is our special sauce.
Finally, as we saw with Don, if your loved ones can’t find your planning documents – whether they were misplaced or stolen – it’s as if they never existed in the first place. Yet, if Don had enlisted the support of experienced planning professionals like us, his documents would have been safeguarded from being lost, stolen, or destroyed.
When we create or update a plan for our clients, it’s standard practice to keep current copies in our office. We can also ensure that everyone affected by the plan is provided with the latest updated copies, and any older versions are discarded.
If you’ve yet to create a plan, have DIY documents about which you aren’t sure, or have a plan that hasn’t been reviewed in more than a year, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can ensure that your plan will remain safe and work exactly as intended if something should happen to you.
We’ll continue with part two in this series on the estate planning lessons you can learn from the Netflix documentary Tiger King.
This article is a service of Ruberg Law PLLC. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed, empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Planning Session during which you will get financially organized and decide what YOU want for YOUR family. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule your Planning Session at no charge.