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Four Celebrity Probate Disasters and Tragic Lessons

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Like some of us, wealthy and famous people are often unprepared for the future. In reality, some of today's most wealthy individuals enter heaven with no will or estate plan. In contrast, others have had to deal with costly mistakes in their estates, tied up all assets, including heirs' fortune-in court proceedings for years.

Let's examine a few cases where celebrities died without proper planning and learn from their mistakes.

Jim Morrison of the Doors.

 Morrison left the Doors to write poetry in Paris before his death. At that time, the popularity of the Doors started to wane; however, even though Morison was known for his wild lifestyle, he still managed to draft a will two years before his death. He named his long-term companion and common-law wife,  Pamela Courson, as the beneficiary of his estate. Morrison left all his assets to Courson but stated in his two-page will that if she did not survive him by three months, his estate would be left to his brother and sister.

After Morrisons' death, his estate was worth about $400,000.00 (about $3M in today's dollars). Even though his assets were modest at the time of his death, Morrison owned a 25% interest in the group, the Doors, intellectual property, and the songs he had written (ultimately, those assets were worth over $85 million since his death). Category: Songs written by Jim Morrison - Wikipedia.

Unintended Consequences.

After his death, Morrisons's estate was involved in litigation; several women came forward with alleged paternity claims. The surviving Doors members tried to reduce his estate's interest in the group and claimed Morrison owed them money. Pamela Courson only received a stipend during this proceeding while his probate case dragged on. Morrison's brother and sister — the alternate beneficiaries received nothing because of the three-month clause and the survival of Pamela.  

In early 1974 the probate court recognized Pamela Courson as Morisson's sole heir.  However, three years after Morison's death, Pamela Courson died on April 25, 1974, from a drug overdose alone and without a will. Her estate, including Morrison's inheritance, was left to her parents by intestacy.

Morrison's parents (Morrison was estranged from his parents and at one point stated they were dead to him) sued Pamela Courson's parents, arguing that their son was incompetent when he made the will and that the common-law marriage between Jim and Pamela was illegitimate. By the time of the lawsuit, the Doors and the Morrison estate had made millions. Despite a probate court finding in favor of Pamela's parents, they decided to settle and divide the estate equally.

The Coursons succeeded in the rights to Morrison's image, music, and royalties. They managed them for many years before passing control on to their children when they divided up this 50/50 between themselves after a legal settlement that ended the fight between both families.

Is this the outcome Jim Morrison likely wanted or planned for? Probably not.

•The band achieved more success and fame after Morrison's death, as did his name and likeness.

• His estate was worth millions when he passed away, something he likely did not comprehend.

• If Morrison had gone the extra step and left his funds in a trust for Courson instead of simply willing it to her, his assets would have passed onto his siblings as he wanted.

• Since he didn't include a testamentary trust which he could have provided for Pamela for life, then his siblings, his brother, and sister didn't get to benefit from his estate.

• The people Morisson didn't like,  his parents and his girlfriend's parents, inherited his estate

Federal Estate Tax. The federal estate tax carried a 77 percent maximum rate at Morrison's death. The exclusion back then was just $60,000. This means that the estate portion that exceeded this amount could have been subject to taxation. Estate tax efficiency strategies could have and should have, been implemented.

2. Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston died without an updated estate plan, leaving her daughter with more than she probably intended.

  • Whitney Houston executed a will in 1993 and died in 2015 without making any updates to the distribution instructions in her will.
  • Her will left everything to her nineteen-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
  • According to the will, one-tenth was given to Bobbi at age twenty-one (about $2 million), another one-sixth at age twenty-five, and the remainder at age thirty.
  • Unfortunately, Bobbi died of drowning in 2015 at the age of twenty-two.
  • Many people had speculated that Bobbi was not mature enough to have received $2 million when she turned twenty-one.

Lesson learned: Naming your child in your estate plan is not enough. You must periodically review the documents and assess whether your original plan to leave your money and property is still in your child's best interest.

3. Michael Crichton

  • Michael Crichton, the author of "Jurassic Park" and many other novels, had a will prepared before dying in 2007. He left behind two daughters from previous marriages and his wife, who signed an agreement waiving any claim to Michael's estate. She was, however, pregnant with his son.
  • He did not update his will to provide for his soon-to-be-born son.
  • A court battle ensued between his daughter from his previous marriage and his wife, on behalf of her new son, to determine his share of Mr. Crichton's estate. Was he to split the inheritance fifty-fifty with his half-sister or a smaller amount as a pretermitted heir?
  • His son ultimately inherited from his father, but the cost of the litigation reduced the inheritance, the process took a considerable amount of time, and the conflict most likely damaged familial relationships.

.4. Prince

The court battle over musician Prince's estate was a probate disaster.

  • When the '80s pop icon died in early 2016, he left no estate plan (reportedly due to some previous legal battles that left him distrusting legal professionals).
  • The probate court had the task of determining the Prince's heirs among the people who stepped forward to claim an interest in his estate. In 2017, the court ruled that his five half-siblings and his sister were to inherit from Prince.
  • The court battle among Prince's potential heirs cost millions of dollars, and all matters involving Prince's money and property took about six years to resolve.

Lesson learned -- We have all had experience with legal documentation that is not up-to-date or accurate. It can cause your loved ones to fight for their inheritance, proper planning, and discussions with the family of your wishes.,

Significant events should trigger a review of your estate plan: a birth, death, divorce, or move. These milestones could have a lasting impact on your estate plan.

These celebrity probate disasters are a stark reminder that no one's wealth is exempt from legal trouble without proper estate planning. As always, we are here to help you protect your loved ones and legacy. Give a call or book a call with us.

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