[as originally published on Financial Advisor]
Two years ago, pop star Prince left his heirs in the same lurch. Other famous people who died intestate (without a will) include singer-songwriter-congressman Sony Bono, artist Pablo Picasso, guitarist Jimi Hendrix and billionaire business mogul Howard Hughes, to name a few.
Martin Neumann, an estate planning attorney at Los Angeles-based law firm Weinstock Manion, isn’t too surprised that Franklin didn’t write a will. Many people superstitiously think, “If I do it, I’m going to die the next day,” he said, or they plan to get around to writing a will but never do
Perhaps Franklin, like many individuals, couldn’t decide how to split her assets among her children, said Neumann. According to the Detroit Free Press, her four sons filed documents in a Michigan probate court on Tuesday, and one son asked the court to appoint Aretha’s niece as the personal representative of the estate.
Generally, without a will, “there’s going to be some time and money thrown away to determine who’s ultimately going to handle the estate,” said Neumann. It might cost a little more to have Aretha’s estate probated than if she’d put it in a revocable trust, he said, and she might’ve been able to take steps to minimize her estate taxes had she planned during her lifetime. But at the end of the day, under Michigan law, Aretha’s estate will pass equally to her four children, he said.
People who wish to have their estates settled in an orderly way and want to avoid fights among family members should, at minimum, have a will, said Neumann. They should also consider putting their assets in a revocable trust, he said—especially if they live in states where probate proceedings are complex and expensive.
When the holder of a revocable trust dies, someone else takes over as the trustee, the assets remain titled in the name of the trust and probate is avoided. “It just saves a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of aggravation,” he said.
In California, attorney and executor fees on a $1 million estate can each run $23,000, he said, and hit $113,000 apiece on a $10 million estate. He noted that residents of states where probate is inexpensive and revocable trusts are uncommon (such as New York and Texas) should put property they own in costly probate states (such as California or Florida) in revocable trusts because real estate must be probated where it’s located.
Naz Barouti, an estate lawyer, media commentator and president of Barouti Law Corp. in Los Angeles, is somewhat surprised Franklin didn’t push herself to address her estate planning issues considering she was older, she had pancreatic cancer and she had four sons. Barouti was less surprised with Prince, who was younger and childless.
Anyone who starts acquiring wealth, whether or not they have kids, should think about estate planning, said Barouti. She even thinks it’s important for everyone, having recently seen many young adults over age 18 become incapacitated without having a power of attorney or a health-care directive.
“It’s not a matter of just having money—it’s a matter of having someone who can step into your shoes and make decisions for you,” she said. “I always tell my clients, if you don’t have a plan, the government has one for you,” and probate outcomes may be unappealing. Parents of minor children should have guidelines in place, she added.
Monica Dwyer, a CFP with Harvest Financial Advisors in West Chester, Ohio, isn’t that surprised Franklin lacked a will because “none of us wants to think about our own death,” she said. Dwyer has long paid attention to ill-prepared celebrities, but the example she’s brought up recently with clients is her mother-in-law, who died without giving the family any direction about her intentions.
“We were faced with so many decisions we had to make on her behalf,” said Dwyer. “I have seen families ripped apart because they didn’t have a will or because the will was not properly written.”
It’s very powerful and motivating to see what can happen to a hypothetical couple with children when they do and don’t have the proper legal documents, she said. She helps clients ensure they have proper, updated documents in place and offers to speak with their attorneys or to refer them to an attorney.
At a minimum, she said, people should have a will from an estate attorney, trust documents (if they have a trust), a durable power of attorney for health care, a living will, an authorization to release health-care information and a power of attorney for brokerage and bank accounts. It’s also critical to let someone know where to find a list of all accounts, passwords for online accounts, stock certificates and titles for anything valuable, she said. To keep track of all this, she uses a digital archiving tool from Everplans.
“If you love your family,” said Dwyer, “provide them with a roadmap of what you want and who gets what.”