By Steve Tepper, CFP®, MBA
If this article seems familiar, it’s because we’ve covered this topic before. We wrote about it in our newsletter in 2014 following the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. His will had not been updated in over a decade, and during the intervening years, he had two children and separated from his longtime partner, Mimi O’Donnell. Because his estate plan was unchanged, his estranged partner received his entire $35 million estate.
Then in 2016, His Purple Majesty Prince left an estate of at least $100 million, no estate documents at all and no known descendants, leading to a free-for-all modern Irish Sweepstakes of people trying to prove they were Prince Junior. (I haven’t heard back on my claim, which would only be possible if Prince was a father at age 5, which come on, it’s Prince—totally possible.)
Now we’re talking about it again, because another celebrity death has cast light on the mess that is created when estate plans are not properly executed.
The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away on August 16 at age 76. Her estate is estimated to be worth about $80 million, and she left no will. Franklin was not married at the time of her death and had four living children, one with special needs. Don Wilson, one of her lawyers, told the Associated Press: “She understood the need. It just didn’t seem to be something she got around to.”
If family harmony prevails (and no outsiders make a claim), the four children will split the estate, but that might not help or be enough for the son with special needs. That alone should motivate a parent to “get around to it,” but nevertheless many people just never do.
But wait! Not all celebrities set a bad example. The “Bandit” himself, Burt Reynolds, who passed away September 6, took some important estate planning steps. In a WealthManagement.com article with a horribly misleading headline, “Burt Reynolds Omitted Son from His Will,” some details of the actor’s legacy wishes were made public just days after his death.
In fact, the will didn’t appear to bequeath any assets to anyone, as his beneficiary wishes were written in a declaration of trust, with a niece named as executor. His son was provided for in the trust, according to the will he wrote in 2011.
So who got what? Sorry, we don’t know, and may never. With a properly written and executed trust, assets pass to beneficiaries privately, unlike a will, which is a public document.
But writing and filing a will, even with no bequeathment in it as Reynolds did, is a smart move, as it would reduce the possibility of a grifter trying to file a fake will to make a claim on the actor’s estate. Think of billionaire Howard Hughes, whose intestate death in 1976 started a 34-year process of sifting through the many claims of secret wives and hitchhiker-picker-uppers who claimed they were entitled to a share.
Proper estate planning isn’t just for celebrities. But their follies, and the media coverage they generate, help shed light on the need for all of us to “get around to it” and give certainty and legality to our estate wishes.
“Aretha Franklin Died Without A Will, Leaving Her Estate’s Future Uncertain” by Travis M. Andrews. The Washington Post, September 3, 2018
“Burt Reynolds Omitted His Son from His Will” by David H. Lenok, WealthManagement.com, September 18, 2018