Aug. 24, 2018
These essential lessons from celebrities can help start conversations most people may try to avoid.
Shortly after Aretha Franklin’s passing, every media outlet was flooded with fitting tributes and obituaries, focusing on the Queen of Soul’s contribution to music and society as a whole. Then, like when most famous people pass away, there was another part to the story: What will happen to all her money?
Unfortunately, Aretha Franklin reportedly died without a will, which may lead to a public court battle over her considerable assets. This coupled with her not having a trust means those assets will most likely be made public when it goes through probate court. When a person in Michigan dies intestate (a.k.a. without a will) assets are divided equally among children (Franklin had four). But this also opens the door for others to lay claim to her estate — relatives, friends, business associates, whoever else feels like they’re owed something.
Even when a rich or famous person dies with a will there can be a ton of drama, but as one of Franklin’s longtime entertainment attorneys told the Detroit Free Press, “Any time [the deceased doesn’t] leave a Trust or Will, there always ends up being a fight.”
This is reminiscent of when Prince died in 2016, leaving behind a huge estate (estimated at $300 million) and no will. In the two years since his death the courts are still sorting out his estate. There’s a long list of other celebrities who died without a will, from Amy Winehouse to Kurt Cobain to Bob Marley, whose family members were still filing suits against each other 30 years after his death.
While it’s tragic and extremely frustrating for the families involved, it’s become a fascinating topic to discuss. It’s one of the few times people are not only willing, but even highly opinionated, when it comes to expressing their views on estate planning. But how can these conversations be used to actually help people? If someone is wondering, or judging, how someone as famous Aretha didn’t have a will, ask them this simple question: Do they have a will? Because according to a Caring.com study, less than half of Americans have one.
It’s vital for everyone to get a plan in place for their family and loved ones, and sometimes it’s up to a financial advisor or estate attorney to use positive and negative examples of well-known people to turn apathy into action.
Plan Early & Be Specific
While it may be more salacious and interesting to focus on the negative examples, there are some positive ones you can mention.
- Paul Walker of Fast & Furious was only 40 when he died in a car accident, but he left his multi-million dollar fortune to his daughter via a trust with his mother serving as her guardian.
- Michael Jackson’s will went as far as naming Diana Ross as his children’s alternate guardian if his mother were unable to perform the role. (Of course, his will was contested, but it’s still pretty cool to know The King of Pop made legal arrangements to care for his kids.)
- Frank Sinatra had an interesting clause in his will to prevent fights over his estate, which was a concern since he’d been married four times and his estate was estimated north of $100 million: Anyone who contested his will would be automatically disinherited. (Hence living up his “Chairman of the Board” nickname.)
Learning From Tragic Events
Odds are your clients aren’t nearly as famous as the people mentioned above. But this opens the door to start a conversation about getting a plan in place before it’s too late.
If you find out your client doesn’t have a will, tell them about Prince or Bob Marley. If they say: “Well, my assets aren’t anywhere near theirs,” tell them it’s all the more reason to have a will.
A celeb may have an outrageous sum of money, but that fortune can diminish considerably if settling the estate drags on for years…or decades. If your clients want to make sure the majority of their assets make it to their heirs, as opposed to attorneys, they’ll want it to sail through probate as fast as possible. Or skip it altogether via a living or testamentary trust.
If they already have a will, make sure they update it every few years. Actor Heath Ledger, best known for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight, had a will but didn’t update it after his daughter was born. When he died unexpectedly in 2008, his entire fortune was left to his parents and sister. Luckily, his parents quickly pledged to give the inheritance to their grandchild, but what if they weren’t so understanding?
You can use major life events like marriage, childbirth, divorce, a falling out with a possible heir, or an unexpected cash windfall, as a way to get someone to create or update their estate plan. Or you can use the news to turn small talk that’s currently top-of-mind into positive action.
A trust and estates lawyer offered the New York Post a reason as to why Aretha Franklin and others don’t create a will: “They don’t want to face death…They don’t want to talk about it.” This is why it’s so important to help family, friends, or clients overcome their fear of planning and simply get it done.