Basic Estate Principles Learned From the Death of Prince
The entire world entered mourning when music legend Prince died unexpectedly on April 21, 2016 at the age of 57. There is certainly no shortage of stories and speculation in the news and social media regarding the circumstances surrounding his death, and the handling of his legal, personal and business affairs.
However, as trust and estates professionals, we are drawn to the estate planning, or lack thereof, of the cultural icon. The story that will undoubtedly change and evolve as the estate is administered can be an entertaining and valuable source of lessons learned to share with clients, family members, and dare I say, ourselves.
No one has been able to find a Will. The initial reports stated that no one was able to find a will, and no one had reason to believe that a Last Will and Testament had been created. This underscores not only the importance of having a Will, but also of making sure your nominated personal representative knows where to find it. Most jurisdictions still require the original will to be lodged or filed with the Court, so your loved ones will need to be able to easily access the original signed document. Copies are generally not acceptable without additional court action. The best place to store those documents may also not be in a bank safe deposit box, unless that person has access to the box already. Otherwise, it may require Court intervention to access the box to determine if a Will is inside. Communication before your death with those that you trust to handle your affairs after your death will alleviate much stress and confusion.
With no Will, the State determines your heirs. I’ve often had people say to me “the State gets your money if you don’t have a Will”. This is primarily a myth in that it would take an extreme situation where someone had absolutely no blood relatives for their estate to escheat to the State; however, it is true that the state law where one is domiciled at the time of their death does determine who receives their estate. For some families, this may be the exact same set of persons that you would have chosen yourself had you executed a Will. For others, including Prince, the determination of the legal heirs may resemble a law school or paralegal exam question. Families that involve children from prior marriages or those born out of wedlock, siblings of both half and whole blood, predeceased heirs, and other complicated family trees may be surprised to see who are determined to be the legal heirs under state law.
The Decision to Not Make a Will. It is rumored that Bob Marley, another famed musician gone too soon, chose purposefully not to make a will due to personal and religious beliefs. Other celebrities have been known to say that they actually wanted the family to have to go to Court and fight over their estates when they are gone.
Did Prince not execute a Will because he lacked trust in the legal profession, or was it an oversight? We will probably never know for sure. Part of the human condition is that we are fascinated with those in the public eye. Perhaps Prince has left us a legacy even more personal than our memories of when we first heard a live performance of Purple Rain.