Why Is Chadwick Boseman’s Estate In Probate Court?

Whenever a celebrity dies, there’s a very good chance that complications about their estate will be in the news. In many situations that can mean that relatives of the celebrity are contesting their will. During the COVID pandemic, a very well-known celebrity passed away suddenly and the specifics about their estate are still in the news.

Chadwick Boseman, the Hollywood actor, was a star beloved by many. Boseman’s tragic death at only 43-years-old was a shock to his fans during the pandemic. Sadly, he battled colon cancer for nearly four years before eventually succumbing to it. Boseman performed as King T’Challa in “Black Panther” which truly made him a star. Even though Boseman knew he had cancer and wouldn’t live too much longer, he did not complete a Will or Trust. Many of his fans have questioned why – or how – he could have failed to do any estate planning given his prognosis. In his defense, it appears that only a small portion of his wealth ($939,000) is actually going through probate. “Probate” is the court process of transferring title to assets when someone dies. If that is true, Boseman in fact did take care of the majority of his assets – with or without any estate planning documents like a trust or will. Let’s break down Boseman’s estate and take a look at why only $939,000 is going through probate, and also what those assets could be.

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So, firstly, Boseman’s estate was estimated at $12 million at the time of his death. Let’s assume this is accurate. This means that outside of the probate that was filed in Los Angeles County by his wife Simone Ledward, there are an additional $11 million in assets. Why would those assets be able to avoid probate?

Certainly, I cannot say for sure as I do not know exactly what Mr. Boseman had or did not have, but here are some reasonable conjectures about the (potential) nature of his assets:
Joint Bank or Brokerage Accounts: Any accounts that Boseman held jointly with his wife would not be subject to Probate. Why? Because “Joint Owners” take precedence over just about everything. When one joint owner dies, whoever is still alive now owns the asset in full. So – watch out when you add someone to your bank account – if you die, that money will belong to that person alone. Property held in Joint Tenancy: Any property Boseman may have owned could have been held in Joint Tenancy with his wife. As with bank accounts that have joint owners, Joint Tenancy means that if one person dies, the other person now owns the whole property.

Retirement Accounts: Boseman likely had at least one retirement account such as an IRA. IRAs and 401ks generally have a beneficiary listed or specify that the funds go to one’s spouse upon death. Perhaps Boseman had his wife listed as a beneficiary, or maybe even his parents. Beneficiary Accounts: Bank, brokerage and other types of accounts can also have a “pay on death” beneficiary listed. Like Joint owners of an account, beneficiary listings take priority over a Will or Trust, and also avoid probate. Life Insurance Policies: As with Retirement accounts, Life Insurance Policies generally have an individual listed as the beneficiary, so would not have to go through probate.

When one dies without a Will or Trust in California but his or her spouse is still living, generally at least a portion of their estate can be transferred through what is called a Spousal Property Petition. You still have to go to Court to transfer the asset(s), but it can generally be accomplished more quickly, and at significantly less expense than probate.
A probate may still be necessary for the portion of the estate that cannot be transferred via the Spousal Property Petition.

So potentially Boseman’s wife could have filed a Spousal Property Petition for her portion of his assets, and a separate probate for his parents’ portion. As we don’t have a lot of information about what the asset(s) being probated actually are, it’s hard to determine if this would have been a reasonable option. Now, let’s address what Boseman’s $939,000 in assets could be, and also how we (the public) will know exactly what is being probated from his estate. The $939,000 is likely to be money held in a bank or brokerage account held in Chadwick Boseman’s name alone. It could be property, but the Petition for Probate filed by his wife asked for “limited authority” versus “full authority,” meaning it is unlikely to be an asset that she needs full access to. Generally, full authority means the Administrator of the Estate can take actions to manage the asset without court approval, and also must be bonded to insure against theft. Limited Authority often means that funds will be held in a blocked bank account – hence no bond necessary – and all actions have to be approved by the Court.

Now, the last question here is – Why did Boseman’s wife need to file a Probate at all? If one dies with an asset or assets that are titled solely in one’s name, not in a trust, and with no beneficiary listed, those assets have to be transferred with authorization from the Court, and hence must go through the Probate. In Boseman’s situation, his heirs at law are his wife and his parents. The assets will be divided between them according to the wife’s community property interest, and the percentages outlined in the California probate code. If Boseman had done a Will, his assets would still have to go through probate. Only a Trust avoids probate in California. So what can the rest of us learn from Boseman’s situation? First, make sure you have a plan for each and every one of your assets. Think not only about who gets your assets if you die, but also who gets those assets if the person you’ve designated dies. Sometimes multiple beneficiary listings are sufficient, and other times you’ll need to create a trust.

While it appears that a limited portion of Chadwick Boseman’s estate is subject to probate, he could have saved his family the headache by putting those assets in a trust. A trust can generally be administered fairly quickly, avoids court, and saves costs. Probate, on the other hand, can take considerably more effort, time and money to complete – and it’s public. If one does have to go through Probate, I highly recommend hiring an experienced Probate attorney who can do the grunt work for you, and ensure that estate assets don’t get held up in Court for years on end. We wish Chadwick Boseman’s family all the best as they move forward to celebrate his life and memory, and I am sure we will all do our part to keep watching his movie and in doing so, contribute to his legacy.