Lessons from Celebrity Wills – Part 2

Celebrity wills show common estate planning problems on a large screen. Let’s look at some famous will controversies and see what lessons we can take away…

  • Princess Diana left a “letter of wishes” asking her estate administrators to “divide, at [their] discretion,” her personal property and give one quarter to her godchildren. Each godchild would have received property worth about 150,000 pounds. But Diana’s administrators chose to ignore the instructions and convinced the court to disregard the “letter of wishes,” without even notifying the godchildren. The court concluded that the “letter of wishes” was missing essential words to make it valid. The estate administrators instead gave each godchild one memento, such as a tea set missing pieces or a watercolor picture given to Diana by a commercial business. One godchild’s parent described her child's gift as a “grubby trinket.” [Daily Mail article here.]

o What can we learn? Don’t try to take estate planning shortcuts. In the best case scenario, your intent should be reflected in your will or trust and not a separate document. In Minnesota, someone with a will can create a separate personal property list to give away particular items. New lists can be created after the will is signed without needing a whole new will. An attorney can help you ensure that your will references the list and that your lists qualify under applicable statutes. These lists can only distribute personal property and not money or real estate.

  • Joan Rivers was active and worked right up until her unexpected death at age 81. Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, hired a law firm to look into allegations that medical malpractice might have caused Joan’s death. The medical examiner determined that Joan Rivers died from “therapeutic complications” during a vocal cord procedure. Melissa was able to honor her mother’s wishes to terminate life support and allow her mother to die with dignity because Joan’s estate plan accounted for her possible future incapacity. [More on HuffPost here.]

o What can we learn? Good estate planning includes planning both for death and incapacity, that is, when you can no longer make decisions for yourself. In Minnesota, individuals can nominate a healthcare agent, document their healthcare wishes, and indicate who they would like to serve as their legal guardian if one is necessary, in a document called a Healthcare Directive. A Power of Attorney can allow loved ones to manage your finances for you in an emergency or if you are no longer able to do so. If Joan Rivers hadn’t gotten the right documents in place before her procedure, Joan’s wishes might not have been known or followed.

Contact Lyon Law Office for assistance with your Estate Planning.