Celebrity Deaths that Made Probate Law News

Celebs seem to always be in the news.

The world is full of celebrities who constantly say or do things that grant them continuous “news” coverage and this is even true after these celebs die. We came up with a list of those celebrities who continued to make news after their deaths because they lacked the necessary estate planning to keep their relatives out of probate court (and out of the news).

From sports stars to musicians, the controversy surrounded these deceased celebs’ estates. These celebrity deaths highlight the importance of estate planning. When coming to terms with the death of a loved one, the grieving period can be disrupted by issues with their Will, inheritance disputes, or other complications. These difficulties are often highlighted by high-profile probate and estate administration cases.

Robin Williams: It’s almost been a decade since the death of Robin Williams. He was very successful and loved, and his films will be remembered by many. But sadly, we’ll also remember that following his death, his widow Susan Schneider-Williams and his three children became engaged in a contentious legal dispute over his estate valued at around $50 million USD. We revisit Robin Williams’s case because it illustrates that even the best and well-structured estate plans can sometimes present problems when the disposition of the personal property is not carefully handled. The issue centers on the vocabulary in the Robin Williams Trust, which the famous actor amended in early 2012 after he and Susan were married. The trust stated that Susan could reside in the couple’s home in Tiburon, California, while the larger Napa Valley estate and its contents were for his children. This means, that according to the terms of the trust, Susan was going to be able to reside in the Tiburon home for the rest of her life. Those in charge of the trust -Robin Williams’ estate planning attorney and an accountant- had to establish a fund to pay all of the expenses of the residence for Susan’s benefit. Susan also was entitled to receive the furniture, furnishings, and some of the contents of the Tiburon house. Williams’s trust also described what he wanted to pass on to his three children, which included all of his “clothing, jewelry and personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan” as well as Robin’s “memorabilia and awards from the entertainment industry.” It also gave his children the “tangible personal property located” in the Napa Valley estate.

The trust gave the rest of the contents of the Tiburon house to Susan, specifically excluding the items gifted to his children under the trust. However, since the meaning of certain terms under the trust, such as “memorabilia,” “collectibles,” and “knick-knacks,” were not clearly defined, Susan filed a claim in Court to get clarifications as to the unclear terms and presented several arguments. First, she contended that the word “memorabilia” should be read to include only “specific items of tangible personal property as it relates to Robin Williams’s acting career.” Susan felt that the term “jewelry” should exclude his collection of watches and that the contents of the Tiburon home should include items that were not actually located in the home but located in storage elsewhere. She also asked the Court to determine how to value the fund that will be created to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home. In addition, Susan included a request that the Court interpreted the list of assets going to his children to exclude all items in the Tiburon house. On the surface, it seemed a simple matter. The kids ultimately would get Robin Williams’ fortune, and the stepmom would get only the items located at the Tiburon’s real estate. However, the estate planning documents included enough vague points to generate friction and urged Susan to petition for clarity. For instance, Susan wanted the trustee to pay $30,000 USD for renovations. So, did upgrades and repairs count under the category of “all costs related to the residence?” Part of Robin Williams’ assets were a world-class collection of esoteric and sometimes surprisingly expensive stuff: army men, scientific oddities, comic books. As a result, it was not just a question of who has a more profound attachment to a particular toy but whether the cumulative weight of the “attachments” ended up shifting the overall balance of inheritance. Maybe Williams actually wanted the kids to have the stuff left in the Tiburon house when he died. Either way, the time to spell it out was when he was still alive to sign the trust documents. Likewise, “all costs related to the residence” or “memorabilia” doesn’t cut it. It’s just too vague when this much money is at stake. The dispute ended up with a settlement, but not after some messy publicity. Without a doubt, a result that Robin Williams was trying to avoid by doing his estate planning.

Aretha Franklin: History is filled with examples of celebrities who died without a will: Bob Marley, Prince, Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, Jimi Hendrix and even Abraham Lincoln. But a longtime legal dispute involving music icon Aretha Franklin’s estate has been the latest high-profile illustration of why it’s important to have a formal estate plan, even for noncelebrities. The Queen of Soul had two handwritten wills. A Michigan jury said Tuesday that one from 2014 — which was found in a notebook under couch cushions — is a valid will. “Everybody should have either a will or a trust,” said Richard Behrendt, an estate planner based in Mequon, Wisconsin.

Prince: Prince’s estate and the legal actions following his death deliver important estate planning lessons to most of the rest of us. Prince Rogers Nelson, the entertainer known generally as Prince, was a successful musician, entertainer, and record producer. He died at age 57 and left a valuable and complicated estate that was made more complicated by his inactions and oversights. He apparently left no valid will. He was twice divorced and unmarried at the time of his death and had no offspring. Prince had numerous full- and half-siblings. Two of the siblings predeceased Prince, one of whom had a child. These people and others claimed to be rightful heirs to part of the estate. Since he didn’t have a will, Prince didn’t exercise his right to determine who would and would not inherit a share of his estate or which shares the heirs would inherit. Perhaps he wanted his half-siblings to inherit shares equal to those of his full siblings. Maybe he wanted the children or his siblings or half-siblings to inherit along with the rest of his relatives. We’ll never know, because he didn’t have a will.

Chadwick Boseman: According to a 2022 survey published by Caring.com, an online advising service for seniors and caregivers, nearly 70% of Americans do not have a will or living trust in place, and only 16% believe that establishing a will by the age of 45 is necessary. It perhaps isn’t surprising then that the actor Chadwick Boseman, star of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” had not established a will before he died of colon cancer in the summer of 2020 at 43. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, only 36% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 49 indicated that they have a will that describes their wishes for how they’d like their assets to be handled after their death. Not long ago, I’d told my father that if he didn’t establish a will, I would remove myself from his financial affairs upon his death. Whenever someone passes away without a will, I’m reminded of what Henry Ford was believed to have said during a magazine interview in 1921: “Money doesn’t change men, it merely unmasks them. If a man is naturally selfish or arrogant or greedy, the money brings that out, that’s all.” Too many of us have seen such sentiments in action, especially after the passing of a loved one.

Betty White: Golden Girl Betty White died at age 99 in December 2021. White did not have any biological children, but she has three stepchildren from her marriage to Allen Ludden, who passed away in 1981. White did not remarry, nor did she have any siblings. Therefore, there were no legal heirs to her sizeable estate. Betty White’s estate was reportedly worth a total of $75 million, with a $5 million property in California that was protected in a Trust. A Will was also left; as a result of her clear and thought-out estate planning, the full estate could be distributed as per her explicit wishes, which are unknown but thought to have included the charities she supported in her lifetime. This case demonstrates the benefits of proper estate planning; by keeping your affairs and your Will in order, you can ensure that your estate will be dealt with smoothly and in accordance with your requests upon death.

Princess Diana: While it’s been almost a few decades since Princess Diana died tragically in 1997, questions about the distribution of her estate continue to be asked. Although Diana left a seemingly solid estate plan, with a valid Will and Letter of Wishes, a variation order was still obtained by her Executors; these were her mother and sister. Princess Diana’s original Will left sums of money to her butler and to be held in a Discretionary Trust for her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, and their future family members. Her personal belongings were to be left to her 17 godchildren, and the residuary estate (any remaining funds after Inheritance Tax, debts, and gifts are paid) was to be divided equally between William and Harry. However, Diana’s Letter of Wishes instructed that 75% of her personal belongings were to be inherited by her sons, and the remaining 25% by her godchildren, differing from her Will. Unfortunately, a Letter of Wishes is not legally binding; instead, it provides the Executor(s) or Administrator(s) of an estate with instructions and/or guidance that the Will does not necessarily provide. They can choose whether to enact these wishes. In the case of Princess Diana’s estate, the variation order caused Prince William and Prince Harry to receive their share of the residuary estate at the age of 30, rather than 25. Additionally, her godchildren were gifted one item each of Diana’s personal belongings, rather than 25% as stated in the Letter of Wishes. While these may not seem like major changes to Diana’s wishes, the situation demonstrates the importance of leaving any direct instructions in a legally binding document, such as the Will or an official codicil. A codicil allows you to add to your existing Will without rewriting it and is a legal document, unlike a Letter of Wishes. Without this, the Personal Representative(s) (the umbrella term for the individual[s] administering the estate) may not distribute the estate according to the deceased’s wishes.

Amy Winehouse: Amy Winehouse’s untimely passing in 2011 lead to an intestacy case; although she had made a Will a couple of years prior to her death, it had never been witnessed or executed, and therefore was invalid. This meant that her estate was dealt with as an intestacy case. Her father was appointed as the Administrator of the estate. As Winehouse and her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, had divorced in 2009 and she had no children, the entirety of her estate was split equally between her parents. The estate was valued at around £3 million at the time of her death; however, it is thought to have grown significantly over the years due to royalties from her music. In 2019, eight years after Winehouse’s death, Fielder-Civil made a £1 million claim against the estate and demanded a monthly allowance from her assets. There is a six-month limit for bringing a claim forward from the time that the Grant of Probate is issued, which had long passed by this point, so the Court had to be asked for permission. Fielder-Civil received a payment of £250,000 from Winehouse as part of their divorce settlement; if this sum was found to be a ‘clean break’ payment – one made with the expectation of no further payments being due – then his case would likely be unsuccessful. In addition, with the claim being made so long after the estate was distributed, it was likely that a large amount of the original inheritance would have been spent. It is not known whether Winehouse’s ex-husband received any money as a result of his claim. Winehouse’s family publicly commented that they were strongly against paying any of her estate to Fielder-Civil, as they do not believe that was within her wishes. However, due to the lack of a valid Will, it is impossible to know for certain. The case of this claim on Amy Winehouse’s estate again demonstrates the importance of ensuring a valid Will is made, even at a young age, especially when large life changes such as divorce are involved. Had Winehouse professionally executed her Will, her family could’ve avoided the strenuous situation of a claim on the estate years after her death. Additionally, by writing and executing the Will using a Will Writer, the document may have been professionally stored, reducing the time spent searching for the document.

So, when making disposition of personal property, make sure that your advisors utilize clear definitions, create a personal property list where you specify who gets what, be specific in your will or trust as to categories of items, and where you want those items to go. Protect your assets and your loved ones from court battles with a quality estate plan.