The recent release of the American film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has brought renewed attention to the author, Stieg Larsson, his premature death, and the subsequent dispute over his estate.
Much like Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist protagonist of Dragon Tattoo, Larsson was also an investigative journalist well known in Sweden for coverage of right-wing extremism, and had been subject to death threats throughout his career; in fact, much suspicion clouded his death, which stemmed from a heart attack. Larsson's three novels that make up the Millennium series were published posthumously and have since become bestsellers and launched both Swedish and American film adaptations.
Larsson was involved in a longtime relationship with Eva Gabrielsson, a fellow journalist he never married, ostensibly due to the fact that Swedish law requires public release of addresses and other personal information which the couple felt would put them at risk of harm. After his death, a 1977 self-made will (called a “holographic will” in the US) was found naming the Socialist Party as the beneficiary of his estate, but as the will was not properly witnessed in accordance with Swedish law it was declared invalid, resulting in the entirety of his estate going to Larsson's father and brother, from whom he had been largely estranged.
Despite having cohabited with Larsson for the 30+ years of their adult lives, Gabrielsson was excluded from his estate entirely. She continues to challenge the family's decisions in disseminating Larsson's work, and is in possession of his laptop computer which supposedly contains a nearly-complete fourth novel that Gabrielsson has indicated she would be capable of finishing on Larsson's behalf. She has written her own book, “There Are Things I Want You To Know” About Stieg Larsson And Me, which chronicles her struggle with grief as well as her ongoing fight with Larsson's family to secure the rights to control Larsson's work. She was offered a substantial cash settlement by the family, which she declined.
While the circumstances at play here are extreme and some elements of Swedish law unique, there are lessons to be learned from the sad story of Stieg Larsson. First, anyone in a committed relationship who wishes to provide for their significant other must seek the assistance of an attorney to ensure their intent is accomplished. Second, holographic wills may be purport to be “simple estate planning”, but the requirements of executing one successfully are not, and vary state by state. While Mr. Larsson may not have anticipated that his estate would end up amounting to much, he would have been better served by professional assistance in ensuring his wishes were met and unanticipated consequences avoided. There's nothing simple about resolving an estate plan that goes awry.