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What can we learn about Green Book’s Don Shirley from his Will and Trust?

Oscar Winner “Green Book” and the Last Will of the real Dr. Don Shirley

When Green Book was released and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Picture, Don Shirley’s story finally became widely known to the public.  But who really knew Don Shirley? Was it his family, who claimed the movie was a “symphony of lies”, or was it the sole heir and executor of his estate, a Dutch financier and amateur pianist who lived in New York?  And what does all this say about whom he considered to be closest to him – his family – or his longtime friends?

And it raises a larger question when it comes to estate planning :

Should bequests in your Will be a reflection of who you consider to be closest to you? Or should you leave your estate to family, regardless of who you’re closest to?

Shirley, who died in 2013 at the age of 86,  spent fifty years of his life living above Carnegie Hall in a spacious loft replete with crystal chandeliers and art from his travels around the world. His apartment was part of an artist’s colony where many artists, writers, musicians and dancers lived and worked.  Carnegie Hall, like all great buildings, went through many changes, and one of them was the shuttering of the artist’s colony of apartments. When that happened, Dr. Shirley reached out to two of his close friends to help him relocate.  One was John Scoulios and the other Michiel Kappeyne.

Both Scoulios and Kappeyne were men he had randomly met in New York City.  Scoulios was working at a hamburger stand near Carnegie Hall, where he began engaging in small talk with Shirley. Eventually he was invited up for long conversations in which Shirley highly encouraged him to finish his education.  “I didn’t know people lived in Carnegie Hall,” Scoulios remembers of his first visit to Shirley’s sprawling loft,. “I was just in awe of that apartment, the chandelier, the grand piano…”

Scoulios eventually finished his degree, became a math professor, married and had children.  And it was Dr. Shirley who gave his son his first piano lesson at age nine months! “He was able to teach anyone at any age anything,” says Scoulios. “It was remarkable.”

Michiel Kappeyne, a financier and gifted amateur pianist, moved to the city in 1995 and attended one of Shirley’s classical concerts.  “It was riveting” he remembers. He stayed to meet Shirley after the concert (waiting next to Liza Minelli) and later wrote Shirley a thank- you letter. Moved by his letter, Shirley invited him to his apartment. From then on Shirley gave him weekly piano lessons that, according to Kappeyne, began in the morning and sometimes lasted into the afternoon.

In 2010 when it became obvious that he would have to vacate his apartment in Carnegie Hall, Shirley enlisted the help of these two men.  They were able to convince the city to close all traffic on 57th Avenue so that Dr. Shirley’s piano could be lifted through the window of his apartment on the twelfth floor by a giant crane down to the street so it could be moved to his new apartment a few blocks away.

When Don Shirley passed away in 2013 he left his entire estate – worth somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 to one man – Michiel Kappeyne, who was also named executor of his will.  In the case that Kappeyne could not serve in that capacity, Scoulios was named to serve as executor. When Kappeyne was asked why he was chosen to be executor he said, “He trusted me with his legacy.” As for his family Shirley specified in his will, “I have my family and relatives in mind, but make no bequest for them as they are already taken care of.”

What Don Shirley meant by this is unclear. One can leave assets to family and friends in other ways aside from a Will or Trust – life insurance policies and retirement accounts are two possibilities. Or perhaps Shirley had provided for them financially during his lifetime.

Regardless of whether or not one believes your estate plan should be a reflection of your true feelings and and affections, I often find that beneficiaries and family members do take it as such.

I’ve handled numerous trust litigations where a family member is suing another family member after he or she discovers they have been disinherited. Some of these cases turn on the question of financial elder abuse – but others are straightforward situations of disinheritance based on preferences.

In either case, communication is the key to avoiding potential litigation. If you’re leaving your estate to just one person – or a charity – communicate your plans to family before it’s too late.

Whatever Dr. Shirley’s intention with his estate, and how intimate he was with his family we will probably never fully know. Personally, I am grateful Greenbook gave me the opportunity to learn more about such an interesting person and gifted artist.

For questions about Estate Planning, Trust Litigation, and Probate in the San Francisco East Bay, call my office at 925-322-1795.

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