We’re nearing the end of October, which means it’s almost Halloween. To be on theme, we tried to keep this newsletter spooky with stories of mysterious wills, lessons from celebrity estate plans, and the scariest topic of all– probate.
One story that caught our eye this month was the story of Joseph Stanack, a Chicago-based recluse who died with unclaimed estate nearing $11 million. His life was a mystery. No one knew how he made his money or what he did for a living. Stanack had no close family and no one brought forth a will when he died at the age of 87. Over 100 distant relatives were notified that they would be receiving portions of his estate.
But then, in a surprising turn of events, a will turned up leaving the entire estate to Smart Kids Childcare, Inc., an organization based out of the Bronx. Attorney Ken Piercey, the court-appointed independent administrator of Stancak’s estate, says Stancak had no connection to Smart Kids Childcare, Inc. Further, there were only two copies of the will. Smart Kids Childcare, Inc. had one copy. The attorney who drafted it, a personal injury attorney, held the other. The attorney died a few months after the will was said to be signed and his copy hasn’t been located.
The administrator of the estate has called the will “poorly drafted” and “highly suspicious” but ultimately it will be up to the Cook County Probate Court to determine the validity of the will. Judge Daniel O. Tiernan has asked the lawyers to present their arguments Dec. 13 in his Daley Center courtroom.
Celebrity Estate Plans
Forbes put out an article on lessons we can learn from celebrity estate plans gone wrong. Among the lessons, don’t procrastinate in your estate planning, keep copies of your estate plans somewhere safe, and if you make a trust, make sure you fund it. There are plenty of other good lessons to take away from this article. Plus, some of the stories are interesting too like the story of Leona Helmsley, a hotel tycoon who cut her two grandkids out of her estate plan to leave $12 million to her dog, Trouble. The grandkids claimed she wasn’t of sound mind when she made that decision. The lesson- if you’re doing something unusual in your estate plan, have a lawyer conduct a mini evaluation and attest to your competence.
On the other hand, Jimmy Buffet’s estate plan seems to be airtight. After the singer-songwriter died last month, his will instructed that his wife, Jane Buffet, be the personal representative of his estate. While Forbes reported last year that Buffet is a billionaire, we likely won’t get to know much about his estate since most of his assets are held in his trust.
In honor of the spooky season, we’ve been writing about one of the scariest topics in elder law– probate. But, probate may not be as scary as you think. If you’re confused about what probate is, take a listen to our podcast: Probate 101 for Non-Lawyers. This podcast explains the Arizona probate process and explores why it may not be as bad as you think it is. In fact there may even be some benefits to the probate process like protection against creditors claims and formal resolution to beneficiary disputes.
- The third week in October is National Estate Planning Awareness Week. This year that was October 16-22. Did you celebrate?
- The Excited Utterance Podcast did an episode with law professor Fredrick E. Vars on the “Slayer Rule”- a rule that says that murderers can’t inherit from their victims. The episode was published October 9th and is entitled Murder and Money: the Dark Side of Taylor Swift.
- Between 2008 and 2018 the percentage of older Americans with estate plans for asset distribution after death has decreased from 70% to 63% according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Why? Part of it is procrastination and financial constraints. Another reason could be that acknowledging death makes many uncomfortable. The diversity of aging populations may also be a factor.
- The New York Times wrote a piece interviewing Hadley Vlahos, a hospice nurse. While the article is mainly about her views on embracing death, but there’s a few estate planning gems in there. When asked what more people should know about death, Vlahos said: “I think they should know what they want. I’ve been in more situations than you could imagine where people just don’t know. Do they want to be in a nursing home at the end or at home? Organ donation? Do you want to be buried or cremated?” These questions can all be answered in a well written estate plan.
- The Wall Street Journal wrote a piece on the big mistakes people make when trying to get on Medicare.