Estate Planning Lessons Learned from Celebrity Estate Administration
A recent article from the New York Times reveals that the estate of the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who died in 2006, is not yet settled. In fact, over a dozen lawsuits have been filed with regard to the distribution of his estate, including one filed just last month. As a result of this litigation, the I Feel Good Trust, established by Mr. Brown for the purpose of providing youth scholarships and named as the primary beneficiary of the estate under his Will, has not received a single distribution in the eleven years since Mr. Brown’s death.
More often than not, a celebrity’s estate ends up in the news because he or she did not execute any estate planning documents during life, the documents that were created were later found to be defective, or there are significant disagreements among various interested parties (or parties that wish they had an interest). This list includes celebrities such as Pablo Picasso, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, the author Stieg Larsson, Amy Winehouse, Alan Thicke, J. Howard Marshall, II (whose wife, Anna Nicole Smith, died before the estate litigation concluded), and Prince. In almost every one of these cases, the estate spent years involved in protracted litigation or was subject to heightened court oversight prior to the distribution of assets to the heirs.
While many of us will not be fortunate enough to amass the wealth of these celebrities, this does not mean that estate planning is any less important. In fact, there are several lessons to be learned from these celebrity cases. First, these cases show the importance of executing a Will. Without a properly drafted and executed Will, an individual’s estate will be distributed according to state intestacy laws, which may not reflect the individual’s wishes. Simply put, without executing a Will, the decedent waives the ability to make his or her own decisions for the distribution of the estate. Second, these cases demonstrate that an individual’s estate plan should be carefully considered prior to executing any documents. An experienced estate planning attorney will listen to the client’s wishes and discuss any possible concerns in order to craft an estate plan that best accomplishes the client’s personal goals. Third, an individual should review his or her estate plan with an attorney every few years, and especially after a major life or relationship change, in order to determine if the estate plan still fits the client’s needs.