Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light,” resided in his mansion in Monte Sereno until his untimely death at the age of 54 due to an accidental overdose of alcohol and valium on Good Friday, April 6, 2012. His estranged wife of 30 years, Nanette Kinkade, and their four children would normally be the rightful heirs to Mr. Kinkade’s estimated $66 million fortune. But Mrs. Kinkade filed for divorce two years before he died, and, for the last 18 months of his life, Mr. Kinkade was in a relationship with a young woman, Amy Pinto-Walsh.
Ms. Pinto-Walsh was living with him at the time of his death, and she was in the house the night Mr. Kinkade died. Ms. Pinto-Walsh claims that Mr. Kinkade amended his estate plan five months before he died, leaving the mansion and $10 million to her. The dispute has now landed in Santa Clara County Superior Court’s Probate Court in front of highly respected Judge Thomas Cain.
When someone attempts to modify their written estate plan it must always be in writing, and the amendment is called a “codicil.” When the codicil is handwritten, it is called a “holographic codicil.” Any amendment to such an estate plan not prepared by the deceased’s estate planning attorney will be closely scrutinized by the Probate Court to be sure that it is in strict compliance with the law. The simple reason is that when one goes through the time and expense of hiring attorneys to prepare an estate plan, why would they not do the same when they want to modify it? The scrutiny becomes more intense when the person making the will is abusing alcohol and drugs and therefore may not be mentally competent.
Mr. Kinkade’s battle with alcoholism was well publicized. He was said to have had a habit of urinating in public, which he reportedly explained as “ritual territory marking.” He supposedly “marked” a Winnie-the-Pooh statute at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, saying “This one’s for you, Walt.” California law does not prohibit alcoholics from changing their estate plan, but there may be an issue that he intended to disinherit his children from his estate and instead give most of his share to the Ms. Pinto-Walsh.
Ms. Pinto-Walsh has produced not one but two holographic codicils that are almost illegible due to the chicken scratch writing that stumbles across the sheet of paper, as would the feet of a drunk driver trying to walk the line. (Mr. Kinkade pleaded guilty to drunk driving in Carmel in 2010). The parties are currently gearing up for a battle of the handwriting experts to determine if the barely legible scrawl is that of the ever-so-precise “painter of light.” But even if the documents are found to be in Mr. Kinkade’s hand, there is still the problem that there are two separate documents: one dated November 18, 2012, which purports to give his mansion and $10 million to Ms. Pinto-Walsh. The second, dated December 12, 2011, gives the mansion and $10 million to Ms. Pinto-Walsh in order to create a museum for the public to view his art. Indeed, if the second codicil were found by the court to create a charitable trust for the benefit of the public, Ms. Pinto-Walsh could merely be its trustee and perhaps not able to personally benefit from the bequest at all.
If the charitable purpose was to be limited to setting up a museum at the residence, the bequest could be impossible given the mansion’s residential zoning and the neighbors’ and Monte Sereno’s strong feelings about development.
Ms. Pinto-Walsh, however, has some facts in her favor: She was apparently granted power of attorney over all medical decisions if Mr. Kinkade were incapacitated, and Mr. Kinkade purportedly made statements to his attorneys that he wanted Ms. Pinto-Walsh to get something. It stands to reason that if he trusted Ms. Pinto-Walsh with control over his life (and perhaps death), why not put her in charge of his property? As part of these documents, Ms. Pinto-Walsh signed a confidentiality agreement in which she agreed to resolve all disputes through binding arbitration. Shortly after Mr. Kinkade died, his estate sought an order that all disputes with Ms. Pinto-Walsh were to be handled confidentially through binding arbitration, and the Judge agreed. It was a wise move on the part of the estate, because the value of Kinkade’s original art and the licensing rights could be diminished if his personal reputation were to be sullied more than it already has been.
But on July 2, Judge Cain ruled that the issues arising from the holographic codicils are not within the scope of the binding arbitration clause, and, unless the parties agree otherwise, it will be litigated in the “light” of open court.
The case is set for Aug. 13 for further hearing on the validity of the holographic codicils.
Christopher Schumb is an attorney with a general practice in San Jose.