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From 1930s pancakes in New York to litigation in 2014

Estate matters in New York and across the country aren't always limited to how property and assets are divided among heirs. In many cases, individuals appoint trustees or executors to handle other business matters or legal aspects of an estate. Sometimes, the family or heirs of the estate take it upon themselves to file legal action related to the decedent.

For Anna Short Harrington, an estate didn't just include tangible assets. Harrington, who died in 1955, left behind a breakfast legacy that still graces tables today. According to reports, Harrington was discovered making pancakes at a 1930s New York State Fair. Quaker Oats, who did the discovering, reportedly cashed in on Harrington's likeness by trademarking it and using her pancake recipes in its products.

Harrington herself played the role of Aunt Jemima, the character she reportedly inspired, for 15 years. Now, her two great-grandsons are suing Quaker Oats and its parent company, PepsiCo. The men say that Quaker colluded to keep Harrington from being recognized as an employee, to steal her recipes and to avoid playing royalties on the Aunt Jemima products to Harrington's estate after she passed away.

The men are seeking $2 billion in royalty payments through the lawsuit, according to reports. The suit indicates that it has proof that Harrington was an employee of Quaker. The complaint also alleges racial discrimination by Quaker Oats, PepsiCo, and Pinnacle toward Harrington.

Though the Aunt Jemima case is particularly complex, it does point out some important information for any heir or estate. Protecting a family's brand or heritage may involve a legal battle. Heirs should weigh the need for legal action and understand the requirements involved before launching any campaign.

Source: Fortune, "'Aunt Jemima' heirs sue Pepsi, Quaker Oats for $2 billion in royalties" Tom Huddleston, Jr., Aug. 11, 2014

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