The Painter, The Wife, and The Girlfriend: Thomas Kinkade’s Messy Handwriting Puts Fortune in Jeopardy?
5 min read

The Painter, The Wife, and The Girlfriend: Thomas Kinkade’s Messy Handwriting Puts Fortune in Jeopardy?

Who was Thomas Kinkade? What happened with his Estate? In this article, we'll discuss Kinkade's situation and reasons why you should avoid creating a handwritten Will! Keep reading to learn more.

Share this article:

Thomas Kinkade was one of the most famous painters of the 20th century. He favored pastoral scenes that were beloved by his fans, but panned by art critics as excessively mawkish and kitsch. Kitsch or not, when Kinkade died at age 54, he left an estate valued at over $60 million. He also left a messy dispute between his wife of 30 years and his girlfriend, an estate plan plus a handwritten Will. This was the recipe for disaster.

Who Was Thomas Kinkade?

Despite being panned by critics, Kinkade’s paintings were snapped up by his fans, who made him a millionaire many times over. Kinkade’s true brilliance may have been marketing. He was able to merchandise his paintings into mugs, shirts, and every other product imaginable. Kinkade called himself the “painter of light,” despite the fact that this nickname was originally given to English painter JMW Turner. Kinkade had the chutzpah to trademark the phrase and it paid off. His paintings were sold everywhere from QVC to Kirkland’s.  

Thomas Kinkade died at his home in Monte Sereno, California in April 2012. The medical examiner ruled that he died from acute intoxication after drinking alcohol and taking diazepam. Kinkade had been living in the house with his girlfriend of 18 months, Amy Pinto-Walsh. However, Kinkade was still married to his wife Nannette Kinkade who he had been married to for 30 years. The couple had four daughters, two of whom were minors. So who was entitled to the Kinkade estate, the girlfriend or the wife?

The Battle Over the Three Wills

Pinto-Walsh, the girlfriend, produced two handwritten Wills that Thomas allegedly made in his own hand. The Will gave her $10 million in cash, the Monte Sereno mansion, and an unspecified role in managing his paintings and licensing deals after his death. According to Pinto-Walsh, Kinkade actually had far more assets than his wife and lawyer thought. She claims he had $66.3 million worth of assets - mostly his art. She said he wanted her to establish a museum of his artworks. The writing was apparently almost illegible. (You can see the scrawled signature here.) Pinto-Walsh filed with the probate court to be executor of the alleged Wills. One was signed in November of 2011; the other in December of 2011. Thomas’ property to convey as he wished. Pinto-Walsh dug in at the mansion and hired security guards to stop Nannette from showing up to remove personal items like paintings and furniture. 

Nannette, the wife, produced an estate plan drafted by an attorney that she and Thomas had executed together. It had not been revoked, the couple had not divorced, and it certainly didn’t name the girlfriend as a beneficiary. The plan included a Will leaving $12.48 million worth of assets to a living trust that Kinkade set up in 1997. The trust likely already contained the rest of Kinkade’s assets. According to Kinkade’s lawyer, it also includes the very valuable intellectual property rights that would allow his estate to keep making money from his paintings far into the future.  

One of the handwritten documents filed by Pinto-Walsh refers to a $10 million insurance policy he wanted to go to the girlfriend. But insurance policies aren’t passed down by Will. Instead, they pay out to whomever is listed as the beneficiary in the insurance paperwork. Did Kinkade not know that, or was this evidence that he was coerced into writing the document? Or did it mean that Pinto-Walsh was the true author? Under California law, the two holographic Wills would probably not trump the actual estate plan. That means that the girlfriend’s claim to money and art was on shaky ground.

The second handwritten document that Pinto-Walsh filed with the court was also more confusing since it referred to another $10 million that was separate from the insurance policy. Was this fraud?

However, there’s also the house and studio, which were valued at over $7 million. Nannette and Thomas had filed a separation agreement stating that title to the house would transfer entirely to Thomas in exchange for paying his wife $1.2 million. California is a community property state that allows couples to agree to separate assets that they acquired after the marriage. It seemed likely that a court would agree that the house was no longer community property and was his to convey.

Obviously, the two were headed for a legal showdown, one that would be resolved by the meaning and execution of a holographic Will. Court papers showed that Nannette wanted Pinto-Walsh to pay rent for living in the house while the drama played out. 

What is a Holographic Will in California?

A “holographic will” is a handwritten or typed document that is signed by the person who passed away. In some states, handwritten Wills are valid but in others they are not legal. In order to be considered valid in California, it must meet the criteria established by section 6111 of the California probate code:

Was it really in his handwriting?

First, the handwriting must be verified as “the handwriting of the testator” (the person making the Will. California allows people to use a pre-written template, so long as the answers given in the blank spots can be verified as the person’s handwriting. In the Kinkade case, Pinto-Walsh’s first challenge was establishing that the two documents were really written by Kinkade. Since they were hard to read, it was going to be hard for a handwriting expert to verify them. 

Was it signed and dated?

Second, the Will must “contain a statement as to the date of its execution.” If there are more than one Will, then the Will with the most recent date will be deemed valid if it meets the other legal requirements. 

Did he have testamentary capacity to draft a Will?

Third, the person making the Will must have “testamentary capacity” at the time the Will was drafted (as opposed to the time of the person’s death.) This was a major issue in the Kinkade drama, as the wife alleged that Thomas was not in his right mind when he drafted the two holographic Wills, since he was obviously under the influence of drugs and alcohol when he died. The girlfriend argued that he was of sound mind when he made the writings, regardless of what he was thinking or not thinking on the night he overdosed.

The Women Settle Their Dispute

In late 2012 the two women reached an amicable settlement. The details were not filed publicly but the parties released a statement:  “Putting Mr. Kinkade’s message of love, spirituality, and optimism at the forefront, the parties are pleased that they have honored Mr. Kinkade by resolving their differences amicably.” 

Sure, Jan, I’m sure everyone felt great about the settlement!

However, if Kinkade’s estate was really valued at $60 million, then that joke is probably true. If I had to guess, I would say that Pinto-Walsh realized the two Wills would be declared invalid, and that Nannette Kinkade made a business decision that it was in her best interest to quickly resolve the dispute by giving the girlfriend the house and studio - minus the art - plus a cash payout to make the claim disappear.

Scroll Down
Share this article:
Let’s begin! First, what’s your name?

Your name that’s stated on your driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport.