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Estate Planning Lessons from the Famous

As an estates lawyer, I shake my head when I hear about celebrities dying without a will or a good estate plan in place, leaving a mess behind them. Their heirs are left angry at each other, fighting for the deceased person’s money and this all becomes public, which makes it even worse for the family.

I have seen this happen to people who are not celebrities who pass away unexpectedly without a good estate plan in place.

Let’s review what a will is. A Will is a legal document which provides for the transfer of your property and care for minor children in accordance with your wishes. When you die without a will, you die “intestate” which that:
- You do not choose who will receive your money and property;
- You do not choose what percentage of your assets go to a certain person/institution;
- You do not plan your estate to decrease taxes on death;
- You do not choose who will administer your estate;
- You do not appoint a guardian for your minor children.

But what is an estate plan, after all? It is a compilation of your life, and I ask many questions to understand where you stand to identify if there are any problems which could come up in the administration of your estate (such as claims against your estate). I described the type of questions I ask my clients in my November 2020 article.

The answers to all these questions and beyond can have legal ramifications that you may not be remotely aware of. Without knowing the answer to these questions, a lawyer can draft a will that is completely inappropriate for the client’s situation.
Let’s look at Aretha Franklin’s Death. Aretha Louise Franklin was an American singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, and civil rights activist. She died on August 16, 2018 at the age of 76. At the time of her death, she left no apparent will and almost $1 million in uncashed checks in her possession. Since no will was found, her estate was going to be distributed equally among her sons according to local intestacy laws; after fighting for who should be the executor of her estate, her family had even agreed on selecting someone. All was going according to plan, when multiple handwritten notes believed to be her holograph will (a fancy way to say a “handwritten” will) surfaced, and one of them excluded one of her sons from the beneficiaries of her estate! An acrimonious dispute ensued between her heirs that is still continuing. Did the different notes represent different wills? And what of the uncashed cheques? Normally, even though they are stale dated, they still represent debts to the estate, and can be collected… if the family can agree to an executor who can handle this!
Let’s look at someone who did create a will: Robin McLaurin Williams. Actor and comedian Robin Williams passed away on August 11, 2014, at the age of 63. In his will, he left the liquid part of his estate ($100 million) to his children, and allowed his wife (who was not the children’s mother) to live in his home until she passes away, at which time, the home would be divided between his children. He failed to address the disposal of his personal items (including furniture), which are worth a lot, given that he was a famous person. The family ended up fighting over his belongings, including the furniture in the home! What a mess to leave behind!
The lessons here are that one should almost always get a will done AND a good estate plan. Creating a will just to tick it off your checklist is very different than creating a will with a thorough estate plan in place.

Raluca M. Soica, BBA, CPA, CMA, JD
Barrister & Solicitor

Raluca M. Soica, BBA, CPA, CMA, JD Barrister & Solicitor    12/12/2020


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