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Complex estates: pancakes, syrup and alleged corporate espionage

Estate planning for many residents in Clark County, Nevada, involves ensuring assets and family heirlooms end up in the right hands. Estate planning should also encompass issues such as end-of-life care and decisions, and in some cases, they should include an understanding of business matters associated with the individual. When complex estates are not sorted out, or business matters are not carefully considered, heirs can be left with legal and other issues.

Sometimes, heirs decide to make legal issues part of their lives because they don't feel like the decedent or the estate was fairly treated. Such is the case with two heirs to the woman who inspired the Aunt Jemima brand. The woman, Anna Short Harrington, reportedly inspired the image of Aunt Jemima and worked for Quaker Oats for many years.

Her two grandsons are now alleging that Quaker Oaks, along with parent companies including Pinnacle Foods Group and PepsiCo, conspired to keep the estate from receiving royalties on the products. According to a lawsuit against the companies, the two men state that Quaker Oats denied that Harrington was an employee. According to the men, Quaker Oats trademarked Harrington's image and used her pancake recipes in their products.

The men are seeking $2 billion in past royalty payments. They say that the companies exploited their grandmother, using her recipes to gain profit but not paying her a fair share of royalties. The lawsuit seeks royalties that it claims are owed both Harrington and her estate.

Mixing estate and business matters can be complicated, which means individuals should only step forward once they have a good understanding of the matter. Seeking help from someone who understands how estate law interacts with business law is a good first step.

Source: CNBC 25, "'Aunt Jemima' heirs file $2 billion lawsuit seeking royalties" Aug. 11, 2014

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