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Estates of the Rich and Famous: What Not to Do

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Celebrities! They are just like us, even when it comes to Estate Planning. It seems shocking that so many big names in Hollywood repeatedly fail to have estate planning documents prepared. The rich and famous have massive estate so you would think they have the money and resources to allocate air-tight estate planning. And yet, there are many big named celebrities who have died without a will, powers of attorneys, or even a trust. Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, James Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Prince all passed without any documentation in place.  Let’s explore the issues that occur when people don’t make an Estate Plan and how to NOT be like the celebrities.

Prince is by far one of the most well-known names on the planet so it’s truly unfathomable that he died without a will, but alas he did.  Prince passed away in 2016 and yet still in 2020, his estate is still open and the disputes have not been resolved.  His Estate is believed to be worth hundreds of millions. His heirs include his six siblings but there is no agreement between the heirs and so the last 4 years have been spent racking up legal fees and his family fighting with each other.  In August of 2020, one of Prince’s heirs, his half-sibling Alfred Jackson, passed away. Now new parties are making their own claims to the estate. It doesn’t seem like this estate will be closed anytime soon. It’s been reported that his estate administrators have spent $45 million, including $10 million in legal fees. There is a huge tax bill, that could have been lessened with proper estate planning.

Kurt Coban. His death was heard around the world. He died unexpectedly, tragically, and young.  Due to not having drawn up a will, Cobain didn’t have a say who received money from his estate. His estate had an estimated value of $450 million and the fight regarding the estate lasted more than 20 years.  His widow, Courtney Love, who had well-known and publicized struggles with mental health and drug addiction was left in charge of his affairs.  Courtney and Kurt’s former bandmates signed an agreement to manage all Nirvana-related projects. The fighting between Courtney and the remaining members of Nirvana went on for years over who owned the rights to Kurt’s music. There have been rumors that Cobain was planning to divorce her, and perhaps if he had drafted a will, he wouldn’t have included Courtney Love. Kurt Cobain had a very anti-corporate image and who knows how he would have felt having his music in something mainstream as the Muppets Movie.  If he had planned for the future, he would have made sure his likeness, his music, his daughter, and his money were all protected.

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died of cancer in August of 2018. She died without a will written by any of her attorneys. It was originally agreed that her estate was going to be split evenly among her 4 sons and they agreed that their cousin was going to be the executor.  However, in 2019, two handwritten documents were found in Aretha’s house.; One document from 2010 and another from 2014 detailed how she wanted her estate split up.  Her estate was worth 17 million. It is unclear whether those documents that were left constituted valid wills.  Unlike Washington State, in Michigan, the law doesn’t require witnesses. There have been numerous fights between her children and her niece.  Her niece has since resigned as personal representative and an attorney, who knew Aretha, was picked as personal representative.  It looks like years of legal battles still lie ahead.

Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 and is known to be perhaps the greatest guitarist in history.  His estate was worth 66 million dollars and continued to grow.  His brother Leon and adopted sister, Janie, have been fighting since Jimi passed away.  There was a settlement agreement in 2015, however, as of 2018, there were still multiple cases filed by Leon waiting for trial. While, his whole estate was inherited by his father, Al, a lot of issues could have been resolved if Jimi had drafted a will.  If he had clearly either disinherited Leon or left him money, there’s a chance that over 4 decades of litigation could have been avoided.

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, left a legacy and an estate worth over $100 million.  As of June 2020, his Estate was still open but it looks like it was going to wrap up soon after a federal lawsuit was filed. There have been disputes as to whether his last marriage was even valid and how many children he had. While James Brown had a will, it had not been updated to include his most current wife, at the time of his passing. Due to this, there have been years of heated litigation as to who James Brown’s heirs are and how much they will receive. Again, issues that could have been resolved with proper estate planning wouldn’t have drained the estate of so much money.

Pop culture and Hollywood love to paint beautiful pictures and eloquent stories of perfect lives but unfortunately, in death, the truth is that without a good attorney and some great estate planning, those beautiful pictures and perfect lives dissolve into chaos. Live your best life, regardless of how Hollywood dictates, but please prepare for the end of your life too. Leave your estate and loved ones in good hands with perfect instructions. This is your legacy, be it on the big screen, or in the hearts of others. You don’t need to be a celebrity to afford estate planning, but we’ll treat you like one anyway.

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