The Astor legacy

Tuesday, May 26
Posted 9 a.m. EDT

The conspiracy-and-fraud trial of Anthony Marshall, the only son of the late socialite and venerable philanthropist Brooke Astor, continues in New York amidst the drumbeat of publicity that accompanies the rich and famous.

Aside from offering a people-watching spectacle, as a troop of elegantly turned-out, old-guard "celebre-friends" like Annette de la Renta and Nancy Kissinger took turns testifying on behalf of Astor, the case ultimately illustrates the age-old miscommunication among generations about what was really intended with the bequest of a life's financial assets.

Marshall is on trial for allegedly coercing the elderly (she died in 2007 at age 105), mentally incapacitated Astor into rewriting her will, leaving him principal and interest on a rougly $200 million trust. Prosecutors claim Astor's goal was to donate the money to charity. Defendants maintain that she always intended to leave it all to her son.

Regardless of the details of the case, the fundamental issues are frightening for any family with even a beat-up pickup truck and a nickel to leave to their heirs. Families will fight to the bitter end over what they perceive to be their rightful inheritance.

All too often, once the estate-planning paperwork is completed, the important discussions about inhertances are left unsaid. When potential heirs view an inheritance as a tangible declaration of love, it becomes even more disastrous to remain silent.

In an article in New York magazine, Anthony Marshall's wife Charlene evokes the emotional connection to money when she tries to explain Astor's alleged intent to change her will and leave everything to her son: "I think a certain amount of guilt came into her decisions … for not being the best mother."

Frequently lost in the "who gets what" decisions about possessions and financial assets is the underlying communication of the "why?" Too often, there are surprises at the reading of the will when inheritors who held certain assumptions are not inclined to sport a sense of humor or nonchalance about the result.

In the end, regardless of the outcome of the trial, it will be tragic if Astor is remembered as a dysfunctional parent at the center of a nasty family-court battle for control of her wealth rather than as chairwoman of the Vincent Astor Foundation, which distributed millions to charitable endeavors like the New York Public Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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