Dimming the Lights: Last Year’s Lost Stars and their Estate Planning

January 9, 2019

The celebrity deaths of 2018 were both tragic and shocking. What was also shocking from all of this was their estate planning. Some celebrities passed without leaving a Last Will and Testament (“Will”) or a Trust. There are lessons to be learned (and avoided) with these famous figures. It is important to note, that regardless of a high-profile career, estate planning is crucial for the future of your fortune, assets, and family. Here are some of the figures who left us in 2018, and their preparation, or lack of preparation, regarding their estate plans:

The Prepared:

1. John McCain:

The late U.S. Senator passed away last year at the age of 81, due to Glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. Mr. McCain left behind an inheritance comprised of wealth, books, cars, real estate, and foundations established by him and his wife, Cindy McCain.

If you were one of the millions watching his nationally broadcasted funeral, you probably found out that the entire service and its proceedings were a part of his estate plan, created by him, his wife and children. According to USA Today, after being diagnosed with Glioblastoma, McCain started planning his own service. “He personally reached out to those he wanted to eulogize him, going so far as to summon former Vice President Joe Biden to his home to make the request.”

McCain understood that a man of his level of wealth and power needed his assets, and legacy, protected and handled accordingly. He also understood that his family needed to mourn, without the stress and financial burden of going through the probate process. Probate is a court process that passes ownership of the decedent’s assets to their family or specified beneficiaries.

2. Bert Reynolds:

Burton Leon Reynolds Jr., or as everyone called him, Bert Reynolds, passed away last year at the age of 82, from a heart attack. The beloved actor starred in Smokey and the Bandit, Boogie Nights, and Deliverance.

None of us are entirely sure whether the actor had left a Trust or not. However, according to multiple reports, he did leave behind a Will. Shockingly, Mr. Reynolds stated in his Will that that his only son, Quinton Anderson Reynolds, will not be inheriting from his estate. He stated, “I intentionally omit him from this, my Last Will and Testament, as I have provided for him during my lifetime in my Declaration of Trust.” While disinheritance could well be the financial fate for his son, things may have been different had Reynolds had left a properly executed Trust.

If there was a Trust established, which would then say his son is capable of inheriting some of his assets, then whatever was said in the Will is now overruled by the Trust. Nonetheless, Reynolds understood the importance of protecting his estate, and followed through with a Will, which although losing in popularity to a Living Trust, is still a valuable estate planning tool.

3. Stan Lee:

The chief writer and editor of Marvel comics, and co-creator of several comic book characters, such as Spider-Man, Black Panther, and the X-men, passed away last year at the age of 95, due to respiratory and congestive heart failure. Lee’s official Declaration, which he signed in early 2018, stated and assigned his only daughter as the sole beneficiary of his Irrevocable Trust. She was given Lee’s home and condominium property, but not direct access to his financial institutions. Lee made it clear that he was the only one in charge of his fortune, even after he was gone.

In Lee’s case, there is some evidence of elder abuse as his cognitive health declined. He worked with numerous financial advisors and lawyers over the years, some of which have been accused of misleading him and mismanaging his money. Switching financial managers or advisors often is a sign that an older person may be in a vulnerable state and cannot understand who to trust. This is why it is crucial to create an estate plan while you are still healthy and retain full mental capacity. Without an estate plan, Lee’s fortune could have ended up in the wrong hands, putting his wealth, and the fate of his classic comic book characters, at risk.

The Unprepared:

1. Aretha Franklin:

The Queen of Soul passed away last year at the age of 76. She was battling with pancreatic cancer. While the world is still mourning her loss, Michigan state law and Franklin’s family now have some work to do. Unfortunately, Franklin did not leave behind a Will or reported Trust to manage her $80 million empire. This means that everything Aretha owned and amassed over the years will now go into probate, and be distributed by her local state law, in this case, the Michigan state law. With four children, four grandchildren, and several other family members and friends, her probate will likely turn into a contested matter with all the parties seeking to claim against her estate.

In general, the probate process involves numerous expenses, including the fees of the personal representative or administrator, attorney’s fees, the premium for a fidelity bond on behalf of the personal representative (if required), appraisal fees (if needed), court costs and other expenses. Not to mention the years of extensive court procedures. Additionally, if a beneficiary is dissatisfied with the Will or the circumstances surrounding its execution, the estate may need to pay attorney’s fees on all sides for time involved in defending the Will, or should a claim be made against the estate.

2 and 3. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain:

The untimely deaths of Spade and Bourdain last year were both tragic deaths by suicide. Spade was 55, Bourdain was 61.

Even with a Trust or Will established, both Spade and Bourdain were not legally divorced from their spouses, even though they were separated from them romantically. This means that their former spouses are still considered “next of kin” and have priority to control all proceedings relating to their deaths. They also have the ability to ignore any family requests. This can easily become a legal problem, if any sort of conflict arises between the extended family members and “next of kin.” In these situations, it is critical to note that any major life changes absolutely must be documented and all estate planning documents should be updated immediately following the change. Their next of kin still have rights, even if the deceased did not want them to anymore.

For all of those who prepared and those who did not, it is crucial to understand the value of an estate plan to secure your family’s future. Before you take your final journey, make sure you consult your estate planning attorney.

Contact OC Estate & Elder Law at (954) 251-0332 or info@ocestatelawyers.com to get started on your estate planning wishes.