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That was my reaction when I first heard that another famous person died without a will.  She’s just the latest in a string of celebrities, including Prince, Sonny Bono, and Marlon Brando, to name a few, who have died without wills.  The stories of these celebrities’ estates are only well known because they had to be resolved publicly through the probate courts.

Some celebrities actually took the unusual step of creating estate plans.  For example, Heath Ledger, who died at the age of 28, signed a will, but failed to update it to provide for a daughter who was born afterwards.  And Michael Crichton’s will, which left his estate to his parents and his sisters, was never updated after the birth of his daughter.  In both cases, the omitted children eventually received some estate assets, but the estates took a lot of time and legal fees to resolve.

Michael Jackson had an estate plan that included a trust – the only problem was that he didn’t put his property in his trust.  Even though he signed a “pour-over will” to transfer his property to his trust when he died, it still had to be probated, which resulted in long court battles between members of his family, the executors of his estate, and the IRS.

Florence (Flo Jo) Griffith Joyner signed a will, but no one could ever find it, so the family went through years of litigation in the probate court to settle her estate, tearing her family apart in the process.

A common thread with all of these celebrities is that they all had more than sufficient financial means to create wills and trusts – estate plans that would actually work!  They just didn’t get it done.  Was it because they didn’t care?  Did they just not think about it?  Were their advisors, legal or otherwise, careless in the advice they gave?  Why did their estates end up in such a mess?

All of which takes me back to Aretha Franklin.  The thing for her is that she had an attorney prodding her to do it.  Her attorney, Don Wilson, told the Detroit Free Press, “I was after her for a number of years to do a trust.”  He also said, “It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate, and kept things private.”  He had represented her for 28 years.  I can only imagine how frustrated Mr. Wilson must be right now.

It isn’t like death snuck up on Aretha Franklin.  She had battled pancreatic cancer for a period of time before her death.  She had both the money and the opportunity to create an estate plan that would have reduced her estate’s tax obligations, provided long-term care for her special needs son Clarence, who will need financial and other support for the rest of his life, and kept the estate and its administration private.  Her estate is now about to become a very public matter in the Oakland County Michigan Probate Court.  It’s sad to think about the millions of dollars that will be paid to the IRS in estate taxes when that money could have gone to charitable purposes instead that could have benefitted her community, her profession, and other causes that she was passionate about in life.

There’s at least a couple of important take-aways from these stories that illustrate threads common to everyone, celebrity or not:

  1. You’re never too young and you’re never too old to plan, but you might be too late!
  2. Estate planning isn’t a one-and-done exercise. After you sign your plan, you can’t just dust your hands off and say, “I’m all done.”  You have to update your plan.  Unless you review and update it regularly, your plan may not work because you may leave someone out, people you appointed to be your helpers may have died or become incapacitated, or you may have left some of your property improperly titled or with the wrong beneficiary designations.
  3. Share your plan and your planning documents with your family. The surest way to guarantee problems, particularly when you have, for good reason, treated some family members differently from others, is when your family finds about your plan for the first time after you die.  We all want to avoid unpleasant conversations during life, but confronting the issues head on with your family will help them understand that your plan was intentionally drafted to address your specific concerns.  When it all comes to light after you die, the beneficiaries generally have a “no holds barred” attitude, and often do things you would find to be un-thinkable.  Money does weird things to people.

If you’re reading this, you’re not yet in the “too late to plan” group.  It should be apparent from these stories that estate planning isn’t always as simple as buying a document off the shelf.  Trusts and wills are a dime a dozen everywhere.  Sometimes the do-it-yourself documents create more problems than they solve because people click the wrong button or check the wrong box, not realizing the consequences of the choice they just made.  Don’t be like the patient who goes to the doctor and says “I diagnosed my illness on the internet.  I’m just here for a second opinion.”  Hire an experienced professional to help you great it right!  And just do it!

My mission is to help people find peace of mind by designing and implementing estate plans that work!