If you were anywhere near a TV, radio, or newspaper in August, you undoubtedly heard that Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” had died. Tributes and remembrances poured in, as countless Americans honored the singer of such famous hits as “Respect” and “A Natural Woman.”
Following the coverage of Franklin’s death, another piece of news came out about her: She had died without a will. Her estate is estimated to be worth between $60 to 80 million, but she evidently never made legal plans about how to pass it on to her heirs.
Franklin had four sons, and they filed court documents listing themselves as rightful heirs to her estate. In addition, her niece asked the court to be appointed as personal representative of the estate’s succession.
If someone dies “intestate” – meaning they do not have a will — the state, the probate courts, and many lawyers get involved to handle the deceased’s legal obligations (such as paying outstanding bills) and distribution of his or her assets. Throughout those processes, the legal fees keep piling up, especially if there are disputed claims about the estate.
In another high-profile celebrity case, the rock star Prince died without a will in 2016. He was unmarried, and his only child died as an infant. That opened the floodgates for other people to make claims on his vast estate, which was reported to be about $200 million. At the time, his only full sibling – a sister, Tyka Nelson – filed requests to initiate a financial settlement in probate court. Prince also had five half-siblings who believed they were entitled to part of his fortune. Within three weeks of his death, 700 different individuals had come forward claiming to be descendants or relatives of Prince.
Many celebrities over the years have died without a will or a trust, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marlon Brando, Heath Ledger, and Pablo Picasso. It is safe to assume they all had attorneys and financial advisors, but for whatever reason, they chose not to have their final wishes put into official legal documents. The actor James Gandolfini (of “The Sopranos”) died in 2013 with some type of will in place, but according to Forbes magazine, the documents clumsily cost his estate $30 million in payments to the IRS. That could have been avoided.
Protecting your assets
When a person dies with no legal will, the succession laws of that state go into effect to decide how the assets of the person’s estate should be distributed. That process includes identifying living relatives of the deceased, starting with a spouse and adult children. In the absence of a will or direct heirs, the state has the power to determine how they believe the deceased would have wanted his or her assets to be distributed. That usually leads to legal arguments – even more so in the case of a large estate.
A properly prepared last will and testament enables you to clearly specify in advance how you would like your assets distributed and to whom. The will also can be modified and updated regularly to reflect changes in your property or among your designated heirs.
It has been speculated that Aretha Franklin did not have a will because she wanted to avoid publicity about her estate. If privacy is a concern for you, a trust also can be created for your inheritors. Then the will merely states that your assets go into the prearranged trust, so you still can avoid probate while keeping your finances private.
Find a qualified elder law attorney you can trust
Regardless of your assets or income level, it is critical to have a comprehensive estate plan in place. By designating which family members will inherit your possessions, you will spare them the pain and expense of a probate fight when the time comes.
The experienced elder law attorneys at TuckerAllen provide affordable smart solutions to help seniors with wills, trusts, Power of Attorney documents, and other safeguards for your estate and your family.