By Susan Tompor Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) If you die without a will, the state, the courts and the lawyers step in to handle matters. Creditors will be paid off and assets will be distributed under the law of the state where you live.
Detroit Free Press
Aretha Franklin's legacy could include teaching consumers yet another word: W-I-L-L.
Get one. Franklin, like Prince, Pablo Picasso, and others before her, reportedly died without a will or a trust. And there could be legal battles ahead in probate court for family members and others because of it.
It's shocking, especially when you consider that Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at age 76, had been battling pancreatic cancer for quite some time. And reportedly, she had $80 million in assets at the time of her death, according to People magazine, which quoted estimates from CelebrityNetWorth.com.
Celebrity news sites are all over this one.
"It's especially surprising given that she has a special needs son named Clarence who needs financial and other forms of support for his entire life," according to TMZ.
How much Franklin's estate really has to distribute to her heirs isn't known. The real value to them will be determined in the months, and possibly years, ahead.
All that money? No will? Yep, Prince had an estimated estate of $200 million and he died without a will, too. Two years after his death, his heirs still had not received any money.
If you die without a will, the state, the courts and the lawyers step in to handle matters. Creditors will be paid off and assets will be distributed under the law of the state where you live. The legal bills build and build in many cases, especially if there are disputes.
"The lesson for everyday family members is when you don't have a will, it makes it more likely there's going to be fighting," said Danielle Mayoras, who, with her husband, Andy, co-authored a book called "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!"
"It makes it a lot harder on your family to go through that process."
The Troy attorneys, who have a blog on celebrity estates, have written extensively about estate planning mishaps involving Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Princess Diana, Marlon Brando and others.
The couple has given positive reviews to how some celebrities planned for death, too, such as Hugh Hefner, who they said "was a role model ... when it came to estate planning."
Their blog is on their website called Trialandheirs.com. They also explore estate battles in a column for Forbes.com and are filming a new TV show on celebrity legal issues, which is set to run next year.
Danielle Mayoras reviewed some key insights with me by phone Wednesday in light of the Franklin estate news:
No. 1: The odds go way up for court battles without a will Even everyday families, say where Mom or Dad leaves behind an old car, a house and maybe if you're lucky a few hundred thousand dollars, can find something to fight about when there isn't proper estate planning.
"Then you get the 'Oh, he promised me this' or 'she promised me that,' " said Danielle Mayoras.
Mayoras said she really isn't surprised that Franklin didn't have will, given how so many people don't have estate plans.
Lists go on and on when it comes to well-known people who died without wills: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., NFL player Steve McNair, and Abraham Lincoln.
Many, of course, have been advised over and over again to spell out their wishes for how their estate should be handled.
"I was after her for a number of years to do a trust," Los Angeles attorney Don Wilson told the Free Press. He represented Franklin in entertainment matters for the past 28 years.
"It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate, and kept things private," Wilson said.
The chances go up when things aren't spelled out that Franklin's four children will find something to fight over. Things can become a lot harder on the family after a death when no planning is in place.
"You better think. Think about what you're trying to do to me," as Franklin famously sang.
No. 2: It is important to plan what happens with your money before you die Even though you don't want to think about death, it remains important to find a good, experienced attorney and start the estate planning process.
Ask your accountant for recommendations. Ask an attorney who helped you in the past for a recommendation. Research recommendations from a local bar association. The Oakland County Bar Association, for example, has a lawyer referral service online. See www.ocba.org. The State Bar of Michigan's web site www.michbar.org also provides help for the public in finding legal assistance.
Loved working with your divorce attorney? Great, but he or she might not be the right person for complicated estate planning.
"You don't go to a brain surgeon to have your heart operated on," Mayoras said.
Ideally, you want to take time to think out potential problems. Are you worried that your daughter-in-law will spend all your son's money once you die? Are you fearful that a child with a drug addiction shouldn't be left $50,000 in cash? Do you have a child with special needs who will need help?
These are the kind of things you'd want to address in an estate plan.
Creating a trust isn't enough. Michael Jackson, who died at age 50 in 2009, had made a will and set up a trust for his children. But like some everyday fathers and mothers, he didn't take the next key step, and fund the trust or re-title his assets into it. And it turned into a family mess.
It could start out costing you $500 and up to go to a lawyer for a will. You'd be looking at a few thousand dollars to establish a trust and estate plan. But again, fees and costs can be all over the map. It's not always wise to go with the lowest-cost option.
Some people with less complicated financial situations could turn to places like LegalZoom.com, where prices start at $69.
A startup called Fabric will even do a will online for free. See www.meetfabric.com.
Chris Mann, an attorney at Dawda Mann in Bloomfield Hills, said using an online service, such as LegalZoom, is often better than doing nothing.
Despite what many services lead you to believe, simply having a will and no trust will still result in probate being required. A parent who does not have a spouse but has minor children, for example, needs to realize that without a will, the children in Michigan would receive all the money once they turn age 18, he said.
"There's a lot of pitfalls if you don't know what you're doing," Mann said.
Having an estate go through probate can be costly and confusing, as well.
"The government does not make it easy to navigate probate court," Mann said. "It's a very avoidable scenario."
Too often, though, people put these types of things off. Mann said he has sat down with clients at his office to discuss estate plans and three years later, they've not made some necessary decisions.
Nearly 100 million adults in the country do not have a will, according to a company called Willing.com, an online platform for estate planning. The site estimates that 60 percent of adults die without a will. ___ ABOUT THE WRITER Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.