It’s often a difficult thing to plan ahead and determine what will happen after you die. For those with extensive estates, deciding who gets what can be especially hard.
Nobody likes asking the tough questions such as, “What will happen after we die?” and “Where do we want our things to go?”
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In today’s connected society one way to get the conversation started is by using the stories and examples of famous celebrities who have passed away. Yes, you read it right.
We all look up to famous people around us, but the fact is that behind the screens and glamor, they are just as human as we are, and they have to make the same decisions when it comes to estate planning and wills. Here are a few of their stories.
Famous Inheritance Disputes or Contested Estates
We’ve all left online condolences when a favorite celebrity passed away. We’re fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous, but we tend to forget that they’re also humans with families and loved ones.
Just like us, they struggle with financial issues, especially when it comes to estate planning and their wills. Let's take a look at the most prolonged and complicated disputes over estates and wills of some famous people and learn to avoid the mistake they made.
1. Anna Nicole Smith
The tragic and ill-fated life of Anna Nicole Smith attracted 2 estate disputes: once when her husband died and once again when she passed away. Anna was married to J. Howard Marshall in 1994. She was 26 while he was 89 at that time. The 62-year whopping difference between their ages caused a lot of people to term her as a gold digger.
The $1.6 million fortune of Howard Marshall was huge. When he died 14 months after the marriage, he left most of his fortune to E. Pierce Marshall, his son. Anna claimed that her husband had neglected to change his will, and that was the reason she wasn't mentioned since he had promised her half of his fortune.
A very infamous and ugly court battle ensued that lasted for over 20 years with many twists in the journey. The will was challenged in court not only by Anna but also by the other son of J. Howard Marshall, J. Howard Marshall III.
When Anna filed for bankruptcy in California, Pierce decided to sue her for defamation. However, Anna counter-sued him, won the case in California, and was given $475 million.
Anna tried to get Pierce’s case in Texas dismissed and turn the ruling in her favor, but the judge ruled in favor of Pierce. The case has since then been heard twice by the Supreme Court. By the time of the second ruling, both Pierce and Anna had died.
The California court ruled in favor of Anna in 2013. In 2015 the Texas appellate court reversed a decision that said Anna’s estate should pay sanctions to Pierce’s. The case can still be reopened in court.
Pierce died in June 2006, and Anna died in February 2007 as a result of a drug overdose at the young age of 39.
The final irony here is that Anna left her estate to her son, who had already died in September 2006. She never changed her will to mention her 5-month old daughter Dannielynn. Four men claimed to be the father of Dannielynn, and a custody battle ensued. Now the sole heir of Anna's estate is Dannielynn. If the case of J. Howard's estate is ever reopened, and the ruling comes in favor of Anna, Dannielynn would inherit the immense fortune.
2. Jim Morrison
While no will is bad, an overly simplistic will isn’t much better. Jim Morrison died when he was just 27 and left a 2-page will. Even though his assets were modest, he owned 25% interest in his rock group, The Doors.
Since he was unmarried, he left his entire estate to Pamela Courson, his girlfriend, if she were alive. If she wasn't, then his estate was to be divided equally between his sister and brother. Since he was estranged from his parents, he didn't mention them in the will.
His girlfriend inherited his estate, but she died intestate 3 years later. All of her estate was then inherited by her parents. A claim was made against their son's estate by Morrison's parents, who argued that the will made by Morrison was incompetent, and the common-law marriage between Morrison and Courson was illegitimate.
However, a probate court ruled that even if the will was incompetent, Courson was the spouse of Morrison by common law, and thus his heir. Morrison's parents and Courson's parents settled the matter between themselves and decided to divide everything equally.
By that point, the band had achieved greater fame, and so had Morrison. His estate was worth millions. What could Morrison have done to avoid the fiasco with his estate? If he had gone the extra step and left his funds in a trust for Courson instead of simply willing it to her, in case of her death, his assets would have passed onto his siblings. Since he didn't include a testamentary trust in the will, his siblings didn't get to benefit from his estate.
3. Robin Williams
After the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, his will resulted in a legal dispute between his 3 children and his wife. He had left all of his $100 million estate to his children with the addition that his wife would get to live in the house in Tiburon, and the children would inherit it after her death.
Even though his will was very clear as to what his wishes were, his family members got into a dispute as to how the estate should be distributed. His will was very specific regarding his money and his house but vague when it came to things that were in the house he shared with his wife.
A bitter and expensive legal battle followed this dispute over the division of his estate. His clothes, his graphics novels, photographs, and other memorabilia caused significant disputes between each child and his wife.
Williams’s widow claimed that the things in the house, such as all his personal items should not be included in the list of the items that were to be given to the children. The matter was settled out of court in 2015.
This shows that you need to be very clear and specific when it comes to the terms of your will because there are bound to be disputes over one thing or another.
4. Prince Rogers Nelson
Who hasn't heard of the beloved artist Prince? Well, he might have been a genius in the world of music, but when it came to wills and estate planning, it seems that he didn't give it much thought. He didn't make a will at all and died intestate. Shocked? So were we!
The exact worth of his estate isn't known as yet, but it is estimated to be around $500 million. Moreover, the value of his estate is bound to increase with time substantially.
Since he died intestate, his blood relatives are going to inherit his estate, which allows a lot of people to claim that they are related to Prince when they clearly belong to the press f to pay respects crowd.
Thanks to DNA testing, a lot of claims of the people who came forward following his death were proved to be fake. However, several possible heirs remain to the Prince estate. According to a court ruling, his 5 half-siblings and his full sister qualify as heirs.
However, it doesn't end there since courts in Minnesota are going to have future proceedings as well. There are two potential claimants other than the six blood relatives who have been recognized by the court.
Money isn't the only issue here. Since there is no will in place, no one knows who is going to control his brand, music, legacy, and image. This may not be an issue for us common folks, but for an internationally recognized star such as Prince, this is a problem that will take years to sort out. The legal dispute over the famous singer's estate is just beginning.
The lesson that we should learn from this story: Don't die without making a will or your family will have to deal with a lot more than merely arranging a virtual funeral and choosing online memorial sites!
Other Famous Wills and Estates
The very few cases that we have discussed above show how important it is to write a will, no matter how rich and famous you are. Let's take a quick look at some other famous wills and estates and see what we can learn from them.
5. George Washington
George Washington was the first president of the US, which makes his will an object of interest. We may not like to discuss it, but slavery was rampant in the US in those times.
The fact that George Washington gave the slaves he owned freedom in his will is very interesting. This tells us that the issue of slavery was taken seriously by Washington, as he clearly mentioned it in the very first actions that were stated in his will.
6. Frank Sinatra
We’ve all heard of Frank Sinatra, the late crooner of the big band era. What makes his will interesting is that he made a very clever inclusion in his will.
Since he had married 4 times and had a considerable estate worth over $100 million, he knew that there would be disputes over his estate. He added a provision that if anyone contested his will, they'd be automatically disinherited. Clever, right?
7. Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was a man who always spoke his mind: be it about governance, fashion, science, civil unrest, or in this case, about fashion. In his will, he left his daughter the picture of the King of France that was set with 408 diamonds.
However, he requested that his daughter not use any of the diamonds for fashioning into jewelry and give air to the "useless fashion of wearing jewels." Ouch!
8. Harry Houdini
Another will with a strange provision in it was that of Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. He asked his wife to conduct a yearly séance so that he could appear and would be able to talk to her.
To ensure that Bess, his wife, was talking to Houdini, the two had devised secret code using an old mentalist's trick.
Make a Will, Leave Your Loved Ones Financially Secure
We all know that death is a reality we must live with. No one is immortal, and the earlier we accept this reality, the better.
Instead of dying intestate or leaving incomplete wills behind that will result in long, tenuous legal battles for your family, get an appointment with your lawyer today and finalize your will! If you're overwhelmed by the number of online will services or attorneys, take a look at the comparison table we've created for you below.
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- Fisher, Daniel. “Court Ruling Likely Ends Anna Nicole Smith Estate’s Fight for Marshall Family Millions.” Investing, Forbes, July 14, 2015. forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2015/07/14/texas-appeals-court-reverses-sanctions-against-anna-nicole-smith-estate/#7e9715221a7e.
- Talbot Law Group Writers. “Anna Nichole Smith: Mother of All Estate Litigation Cases.” Talbot Law Group, P.C., Talbot Law Group, July 16, 2015. matthewbtalbot.com/blog/2015/7/16/anna-nicole-smith-the-mother-of-all-estate-litigation-cases.
- Hackard Law Writers. “Jim Morrison. Who Inherited His Estate?” Celebrity Estate Battles, Hackard Law, April 29, 2019. hackardlaw.com/jim-morrison-who-inherited-his-estate/.
- Marenco, Leslie. “Robbin Williams’ Estate Battle was No Joke.” Celebrity Estates, Trust Council, December 5, 2019. trustcounsel.com/2019/12/robin-williams-estate-no-joke/.
- Puente, Maria. “Prince died three years ago, his estate is still unsettled: Here’s why.” Life, USA Today, April 18, 2019. usatoday.com/story/life/2019/04/18/prince-died-3-years-ago-his-estate-still-unsettled-heres-why/3344038002/.
- Mount Vernon Editors. “George Washington’s Will.” Washington Library, The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, January 2020. mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washingtons-will/.
- Clause 10, Will of Frank Sinatra. livingtrustnetwork.com/estate-planning-center/last-will-and-testament/wills-of-the-rich-and-famous/last-will-and-testament-of-frank-sinatra.html.
- Royse, Rhonda. “Harry Houdini and His Unusual Will.” Celebrity Estates, Morris Hall PLCC, July 1, 2013. livingtrustnetwork.com/estate-planning-center/last-will-and-testament/wills-of-the-rich-and-famous/last-will-and-testament-of-frank-sinatra.html.