It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of estate planning, regardless of the size of your estate or the stage of life you’re in. A close second to the need to plan your estate is getting it done correctly, based on your individual circumstances.
You might think that those who are rich and famous would be way ahead of the curve when it comes to planning their estates properly, considering the resources and lawyers presumably available to them. Yet, there are plenty of celebrities and people of note who died with inadequate (or nonexistent) estate plans.
No estate plan
It’s hard to imagine why some famous people left this world with no estate plan. A case in point involves former entertainer-turned-congressman Salvatore Phillip “Sonny” Bono. He died in a skiing accident in 1998, leaving no will or estate plan of any kind. His surviving wife had to petition the probate court to be appointed her deceased husband’s administrator, seek court permission to continue various business ventures in which Sonny was involved, and settle multiple claims against the estate (including one from Sonny’s more famous prior spouse, Cher). To make matters worse, a claim against the estate was brought by a purported extramarital child, which necessitated a DNA test from Sonny’s body to determine whether he’d fathered the claimant (he did not).
We’ve all seen the ads for do-your-own legal documents, including wills and trusts. And the law does not require that you hire an attorney to prepare your will. But even the highest ranking jurist of his time should have relied on estate planning experts to prepare his estate plan. Instead, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who died in 1995, apparently typed his own will (consisting of only 176 words), which contained several typographical errors. More importantly, he neglected to address several issues that a well-drafted will would typically include. His family paid over $450,000 in taxes and had to seek the probate court’s permission to complete administrative tasks like selling real estate.
The importance of updating your estate plan
Sure, formulating and executing an estate plan is important, but it shouldn’t be an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” endeavor. It’s equally important to periodically review your documents to be sure they’re up-to-date. The problems that can arise by failing to review and update your estate plan are evidenced by the estate of actor Heath Ledger. Although Ledger had prepared a will years before his death, there were several changes in his life that transpired after the will had been written, not the least of which was his relationship with actress Michelle Williams and the birth of their daughter, Matilda Rose. His will left everything to his parents and sister, and failed to provide for his “significant other” and their daughter. Apparently his family eventually agreed to provide for Matilda Rose, but not without some family disharmony.
Let someone know where the documents are kept
An updated estate plan only works if the people responsible for carrying out your wishes know where to find these important documents. Olympic medalist Florence Griffith Joyner died at the young age of 38, but her husband claimed he couldn’t locate her will, leading to a dispute between Mr. Joyner and Flo Jo’s mother, who claimed the right to live in the Joyner house for the rest of her life.
The will of baseball star Ted Williams instructed his executor to cremate his body and sprinkle the ashes at sea. However, one of William’s daughters produced a note, allegedly signed by Ted and two of his children, agreeing that their bodies would be cryogenically stored. Before the will could be filed with the probate court, the body was taken to a cryogenic company, where its head was severed and placed in a container.