Friday, December 28, 2012

ANDY ROONEY & OTHER CELEBRITY PROBATES: Procrastination Landed Their Estates in Court

            I always enjoyed watching Andy Rooney’s closing commentary on the television show, “60 Minutes”.  That little touch of humor with a dash of sarcasm was a nice recipe for a lighter take on things.  Whether talking about such things as “wash and wear shirts that you can wash, but cannot wear”, or observing that “if dogs could talk, it would take a lot of the fun out of owning one”, for 33 years Mr. Rooney entertained audiences with his satire.  He died November 4, 2011, at the age of 92, just one month after delivering his last show. 

I remember his frequent opening line, “What’s all this talk anyway about . . . . ”  Paying homage to Andy Rooney, this week I’d like to ask, What’s all this talk about estate planning?

There’s nothing new about estate planning, per se.  It’s just that people eventually reach a point in time when they need it, so it’s an evergreen topic that comes up for every family.  For decades, only the wealthy elite used estate planning tools such as trusts and family partnerships as a way to accomplish tax goals and transfer wealth to later generations.  Less fortunate people had a simple will, if they had anything at all.  Over the past 25 to 30 years, however, not so wealthy individuals are also using trusts and estate plans as well to make disposition of their assets upon death and to plan for their own care during their lifetimes in the event an illness left them unable to care for themselves. 

But even with a topic as common as this, a surprising number of people either still haven’t done any form of estate planning, or what they have prepared isn’t standing up well in court.  Recent celebrity examples are Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson.  Probate records show that Amy Winehouse died without a will and she amassed a fortune having an estimated worth of $6.7 million.  It is rumored that Winehouse still loved her ex-husband, despite his lengthy prison sentence for burglary related to his drug addiction.  But without a will, he gets nothing.  The same is true for her brother.  By law, the estate goes to Amy’s parents.  Michael Jackson, on the other hand, did prepare a will.  But he died $500 million in debt.  The executors now claim to have earned $475 million for the estate over the past 3 years and by law they are allowed to keep 10% of that as a fee.  The Jackson family is up in arms, filing claims against the executors and promising more claims to come.  So even with a will, there’s no apparent end to this estate battle in the foreseeable future.  A carefully drafted trust could have avoided all of that.

So when you are ready to take the plunge regarding your own estate plan, just know that there is no “one size fits all” and many documents are involved, including a trust, will, advance health care directive, and durable power of attorney, to mention a few, and each client’s unique circumstances should be reflected in their plan.  Beware of lawyers who try to fit every client’s estate plan into the same template. While some clients have very similar needs, estate planning just doesn’t work that way.  In more than one instance, I had clients who were charged terribly high fees by other lawyers only to receive nothing more than 75 pages of fairly useless boilerplate form language that had absolutely nothing to do with that particular client’s needs.  If you already have an estate plan, don’t forget to have it reviewed now and then, especially if you moved to Texas from another state.  Laws and document requirements vary from state to state. 

Andy Rooney, by the way, died with assets worth $9 million, and because he didn’t prepare a trust his will is being probated in the New York courts.  His estate will be divided among his four children after the court completes the probate and the lawyers take their nice big fee.  That’s one more thing about which I’m sure Andy would have had a few choice words.    

For more information on estate planning and other legal needs, or if you have a legal question you would like for me to address, please visit my website at, email me at, or call me at 512-863-5658 or 512-677-5LAW (-5529).  My office is located in Georgetown, Texas.

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