Wills In The News: Aretha Franklin Dies Intestate

Recently, I wrote an article about how Richard Harrison’s reliance on a Will instead of a living trust meant that his family was unable to keep private matters private. In Richard’s Will, the “Old Man” of the Pawn Stars TV show “intentionally and with full knowledge” disinherited one of his sons—a fact he could have kept from the public eye by using a trust.

Early in September, news of another celebrity estate-planning misstep broke: Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16, did not even have a Will. In other words, she died intestate, leaving the question of who gets what up to Michigan law—she lived in Detroit—and the agreement of her heirs.

So far, Aretha’s heirs seem to be handling her estate’s affairs amicably. In that way, she may have dodged a bullet: Dying without an estate plan is often a recipe for confusion and conflict. In fact, that’s just one of many problems that can confront a person’s loved ones when he or she dies without a Will.

What’s So Bad About Dying Without a Will?

People who die without a Will or other appropriate estate-planning documents give up the power to make important decisions about what happens both before and after they die, such as:

  • Who gets what? Dying intestate means that state law determines how your property is divided—which may not be how you would have liked to divide it. For example, if you have a small business, you might prefer to leave it entirely to a child who is more entrepreneurial than having it divided equally among all your children.
  • Making special provision for special-needs children. Aretha’s oldest son has a guardian. She might have preferred to make special provision for him (like a special-needs trust) to make sure he’ll always be taken care of. Dying without a Will means she was not able to.
  • Nominating a guardian for minor children. Although all of Aretha’s children are adults, for parents of young children, having a Will lets you nominate a guardian if both parents die.

Estate planning, at bottom, is the process of making those decisions and giving them legal effect. But it’s also about more than just that: If you don’t have a Will, you likely don’t have the other key estate planning documents that come into play while you’re still alive. That can make it harder for your loved ones to take care of you and your property if you become incapacitated.

Learning from Celebrities’ Mistakes

Celebrity deaths, like those of Richard Harrison and Aretha Franklin, give us all a chance to reflect on the ways their lives impacted our own. But they can also serve to teach us the importance of having a good estate plan in place: A Will gives you control over what happens after you die, and a trust can help you keep private matters private.

Those lessons are things we should all consider when thinking about the future. Just a little bit of planning can go a long way in making our lives and our deaths easier for ourselves and our loved ones. Contact me today to start the process of planning for your own future.

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