Probate is the legal process of administering a deceased person's estate, whether that person died with or without a will. The process ensures that the correct heirs receive the deceased person's possessions and that the estate pays any outstanding taxes or debts. Without a valid will in place, the assets pass on according to state laws known as intestacy statutes. On the other hand, if there is a will, the property passes on according to the terms laid out in that instrument.
There is a common misconception that only the rich and famous have enough assets to warrant planning for what might happen in probate. However, failing to have a plan in place after your death can significantly impact your loved ones regardless of income. Heirs can end up battling over their inheritances for years, exacerbating tensions and tearing families apart.
If you want your estate plan to maintain your legacy the way you intended, its important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney. They can help you protect your loved ones after your death. To learn more about how the probate process can go awry without a plan, let's take a look at some of the biggest probate controversies of 2020.
Prince: When An Heir Dies
Even though the singer-songwriter, Prince, died in 2016, his estate is still making headlines today. After his death, almost 45 people claimed to be Prince's heir because he died without a will. In the end, the court ruled that Prince's six siblings were his true next of kin, but it has spent the rest of the past few years trying to put a value on Prince's estate.
To complicate matters, one of Prince's siblings, Alfred Jackson, died last summer. Before Jackson's death, he signed over his interest in the Prince estate to a talent management company. When Mr. Jackson died, it was discovered that his own will bequeathed the remainder of his interest in the Prince estate to a Dutch entertainment consultant. So, in addition to unraveling Prince's estate, the probate court must now determine where his brother's interest in his estate correctly belongs.
The Lesson from Prince's Estate
A well-drafted estate plan accounts for circumstances like this by incorporating a survivorship clause in the will. A survivorship clause requires that a beneficiary survive the decedent by a set number of days to receive their inheritance. The provision also determines what happens to the heir's interest should the recipient pass away before the survivorship time expires. By including this clause, the will ensures that the decedent's assets pass on to their heirs in the way they intended.
Aretha Franklin: A Tale of Two Wills
Like Prince, Aretha Franklin died without a will. However, her estate was expected to be divided evenly among her four sons, and the family appointed Ms. Franklin's niece as the executor to ensure that administration. Unfortunately, in 2020, Ms. Franklin's niece stepped down as the estate's administrator due to family in-fighting, and the court is still working to divide the assets.
The issues started soon after Ms. Franklin's niece was appointed executor. Her niece and attorney found two handwritten documents in her home that appeared to be two different versions of a written will. Both documents divide the estate in different ways. Now the courts must decide which version of the will is valid.
The Lesson from Aretha Franklin's Estate
The problem is that Ms. Franklin failed to indicate which will took precedent over the other. When there are two or more wills offered in probate, the court will look at the surrounding circumstances to determine which document takes precedent. That process is expensive and time-consuming as Ms. Franklin's probate is demonstrating. To avoid this debate entirely, the maker of the will must explicitly revoke any earlier will in writing.
Fred Trump: The NDA Doesn't Cut It
One of the most talked-about probate controversies of 2020 came to the forefront because of a book. Mary Trump, President Trump's niece, recently released Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, and the book's publisher marketed the novel as a tell-all about the Trump family. One of the issues Mary Trump had to overcome was a legal battle over a non-disclosure agreement ("NDA") she signed in settlement of her grandfather's will. Ultimately, the court ruled that the publisher could move forward with the novel's publication because the NDA made the financial aspects of the settlement confidential. The court also ruled that when Ms. Trump signed the NDA "the issues that were the subject of the agreement were intrafamily issues, not of worldwide concern, or even national interest" as they are now. Accordingly, the court found that those interests outweighed the concerns over NDA violations.
The Lesson from the Fred Trump Estate
Once again, through this case, we see the importance of drafting estate planning documents that look ahead to effectuate the decedent's wishes into the future. Poorly drafted wills are costly and can lead to never-ending probate debates and the reveling of family secrets that no family member wants public.
If you are looking to protect your family from a costly probate fight, Crow Estate Planning & Probate can help. Some careful planning is well worth your peace of mind moving forward.