Sometimes, you can develop a fondness for tasks that used to seem like a chore. That’s me and the brief. Having spent more than a decade in newspaper journalism, I compiled plenty of news briefs, collections of news of the day each item boiled down to a paragraph or two. These days, news bits are everywhere: blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, etc., and now that I have been out of journalism awhile, I appreciate the utility of the quick hit of information. So toward the end of each month, I’ll round up some developments in estate planning and elder law. For May, it just so happens that several items involve celebrities. This isn’t intended to be celeb-centric space, but sometimes their estate planning missteps provide important lessons for all of us. If you see an item out there that would make a good brief, feel free to e-mail me or comment here.
After Aretha Franklin’s death, people were shocked to discover she had no Will. As it turns out, she did have a Will. In fact, she had three! Three hand-written Wills have been found in the late singer’s residence. The most recent, dated 2014, is hard to read, has words scribbled out, and was found in a spiral notebook under some cushions. The other two were in a locked cabinet. Some family members are objecting to the 2014 version, they are in discussions, and what was already a mess is now messier. The point of having an estate plan is to make your wishes clear. We almost never say it’s OK not to have a plan, but if your “plan” confuses everyone, it’s not really a plan.
[What is it about musicians, anyway — and why do we keep writing articles about problems with their estate planning — or lack thereof? Like Prince, or even Robert Johnson, who died in 1938?]
Director John Singleton died with a Will that was 26 years old that gave his entire estate to his only child. Wills never expire, so what’s the problem? Since 1993, he had six more kids. Now, like most places, the law in California steps in to include the omitted children, so they won’t be disinherited. Under Arizona law, omitted children divide up what the included children received. So if Singleton had died in Arizona, his seven kids would get his $3.8 million estate in equal shares. First daughter Justice’s inheritance gets slashed from $3.8 million to $542,857. Is that justice? Is that what Singleton wanted?
Here’s yet another example of step-relations going south after the passing of the family member that bound them together. And it involves yet another musician. Tom Petty’s daughters have filed suit against their step-mother, accusing her of keeping them from participating in their rightful role under Petty’s estate plan. He tried to be fair, giving them equal power to make some decisions, but that didn’t work. With a blended family, an outside administrator can be worth is or her weight in gold. If nothing else, family members might band together against a common enemy, instead of attacking one another.
Robert Indiana’s estate proves that you don’t have to have any family members to have love-hate litigation. The artist famous for the iconic 1970 “LOVE” sculpture died with no heirs and left his estate with colleagues whom he trusted to protect his legacy. Now the administrator of his estate is trying to stop others from reproducing Indiana’s work. The defending parties say they have contracts that will stand up. One is quoted as saying: “They just lost the only ally they ever had. I am going to rip them apart. I am done being a nice guy with them. They can all go to hell.” All they need is love?
You can take your pets with you, or have them taken out with you. A Virginia woman’s estate plan directed her executor to euthanize Emma, her Shih Tzu, so the two could be buried together, and it appears that at least the euthanasia part was followed. This sort of thing comes up in law school text books, but rarely do you hear about it happening in real life. It’s legal (in Arizona, too) because animals are property. Even Arizona’s animal cruelty laws don’t appear to have an affect. We tend to think it would be difficult to find a veterinarian who will put down a healthy animal, but apparently they didn’t have that problem in Richmond.
Illinois, one of the 12 states (plus D.C.) that impose a state estate tax, has been on the verge of repealing its estate tax as part of a collection of tax reforms. The move of course sparked debate; liberals argued to keep it. But it appears that the companion bills have broken apart, and estate tax repeal has fallen by the wayside, while income and property tax reform are taking priority as the state’s legislative session winds down. For now, it looks like Illinois will remain on the state death tax list.