Legendary singer and songwriter, Aretha Franklin died in August. Without a will. As a result, her assets are to be divided equally between her four sons per statute set by the state of Michigan. It is estimated her estate, including business interests and artistic work, is worth upwards of $80 million, so a really large estate tax also appears due. Proper estate planning would have possibly saved her family millions.
Ms. Franklin was also characterized as intensely private. How ironic then that her death without an estate plan makes her finances very public for the whole world to see. Plus, if there is litigation due to the absence of planning, the settlement could drag on for years and cost a lot of money.
Dying intestate (without a will) may be fine for some people.* Yet, the need for an estate plan usually gets stronger as we age, marry, have children, become blended families and grow our wealth. I am not going to delve into the affliction PRD-itis** (Procrastination, Rationalization, Denial), but why is it so hard for some of us to do the important planning when it comes the time?
Here are a few of the more common reasons we have heard over the years that cause inaction:
- My assets are held in joint tenancy with my spouse and in accounts with specified beneficiary designations. This may work out for some couples, at least for the spouse who dies first, and if both spouses are competent.
- My spouse and I cannot agree on a plan. This is a big hurdle so it’s definitely time to get real-world guidance from an estate planning professional so that you can try to find common ground.
- I am not sure who to leave my estate to. Remember, if you don’t decide, the state has already decided for you. Make sure you are fine with its formulas.
- I am having difficulty how best to address the need to treat one or more children differently. It is a fact of life that not all kids are ready for wealth at the same time or same age. Professionals can help design estate plans to handle all sorts of family needs and dynamics.
- I don’t want to incur big attorney fees. This may be a case of penny wise, pound foolish. You should be able to get the legal services you need at a fair price. Some estates need complex (read expensive) planning while many others do not.
- “I can ignore it since I’m not going to die right away.” “It’s too depressing.” “I don’t like to think about it.” “I haven’t had time.” “I don’t care – I will be dead.” Ok, these are not valid reasons but cases of PRD-itis. Sometimes the person suffers from a severe case and just says “I’m not going to die.” This last one has a really poor track record.
The importance of wills and estate planning cannot be stressed enough.
I don’t know why Ms. Franklin didn’t have even a will, much less a trust to keep her estate transfer private. And she appears to have been a prime candidate for more comprehensive planning to reduce estate taxes and protect assets from illegitimate heirs and other “hanger-on’ers“. Maybe she struggled with some of the same issues many of us have. Yet, the right planning will not only put our own minds at ease but make our family’s life less stressful.***
*I am not an attorney so nothing I say should be confused with legal advice.
**I made this ailment up.
***Other parts of an estate plan often include a power of attorney and an advance health care directive. These are two big items that help your family handle matters when you are alive but are unable to act or decide on your own.