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Published 09th April 2020 | Probate & Power of Attorney

The biggest celebrity Probate disasters of all time

Probate

Most of us care about what happens to our estate when we die. It is important to us that our hard-earned assets are used for the purposes we wish during Probate, whether that is to help our partner or children, or to help a cause close to our hearts.

In most cases, this is exactly what happens. However, it can occasionally go wrong in the course of Probate — the process of authorising the Will to be activated. This may be because of an error in drawing up the Will, because something unforeseen has happened, or because no valid Will has been made.

This can happen to anyone, but it is often most spectacularly disastrous when the rich and famous are involved. Here are some of the most notorious examples.

Jimi Hendrix

The great rock guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, was only 27 when he died in 1970, and like many young people had not yet made a Will. His estate was fairly complex, since his assets included a considerable amount of intellectual property, which continues to earn royalties, even now.

It took a couple of decades before Hendrix’s father managed to gain control of the estate from the lawyer who had been administrating it. However, this still failed to settle matters, since after the father’s death, a battle resumed between Hendrix’s brother and adopted sister. This could all have been avoided, of course, if he had simply drawn up a Will.

Prince

Prince Rogers Nelson, who was better known as Prince, was another great musician who died without making a Will. Though considerably older than Hendrix, at 57, Prince had developed a distrust of lawyers due to bad experiences during litigation and, sadly, avoided having a Will in place.

This has led to a battle between Prince’s full sister, his five half-siblings and several hundred more dubious claimants to be related. The situation has not yet been resolved and looks set to continue for many years. It illustrates that, although many people have unfortunate experiences with specific lawyers, it is far better to overcome any fears and make a Will.

Heath Ledger

Hollywood actor Heath Ledger died at the age of 28 from a prescription drug overdose, leaving considerable confusion in the handling of his estate. He left a Will, but it had been made before his daughter was born and left his estate to his parents and siblings. This could have caused a dispute after his death, but since he had taken out a substantial life insurance policy, with his daughter as beneficiary, there were no grounds for conflict.

However, there was an additional problem. Ledger had given his residence as Western Australia, but by the time he died he was living in New York. While this would not have affected the bequests, giving his residence as New York could have meant paying considerably less tax. This shows the importance of updating your Will whenever any aspect of your life has changed.

Brooke Astor

The heiress to the Astor fortune, Brooke Astor, died in 2007 at the age of 105 and was worth $100 million, despite having given an even larger fortune to charity. Her last Will, made in 2002, left much of her remaining wealth to charity, but two subsequent codicils altered this to leave most of it to her son, Anthony, while a third specified that the codicils could only be challenged in reverse order — a battle that could last years.

The entire 2002 Will has been challenged, however, on the grounds that she did not have mental capacity at the time she made it, and there have been allegations that her son manipulated her. The case has still not been resolved, and it underlines the importance of ensuring that there is clear evidence that the testator has mental capacity when making the Will, if this is likely to be challenged.

Jerry Garcia

By the time Grateful Dead musician Jerry Garcia died in 1995, his affairs were complex, to say the least. He had been married three times and also had children with several other women. For the most part, his Will was well designed to provide for all those he wished to. However, he named his third wife as Executor responsible for ongoing alimony payments to his second wife, and she took it on herself to stop the payments, a decision eventually overturned in court.

Garcia also included a bequest leaving his custom-made guitars to the man who had made them. This was challenged by Grateful Dead Productions, Inc., who claimed ownership. Although a compromise was reached, the dispute could have been avoided if Garcia had itemised the guitars in his Will.

Anna Nicole Smith

Model Anna Nicole Smith hit the headlines when she married billionaire Howard Marshall, who was sixty years her senior and died just thirteen months later. Whether or not Smith was simply after his money, though, it was not as simple as that. Marshall’s Will left everything to his son by a previous marriage.

Smith challenged the Will, but matters became more complex when both she and her stepson died within months of one another. Smith left a Will leaving everything to her own son, who had also died shortly before, and nothing to her newborn daughter. This was eventually overturned, but the issue of whether Smith had anything to leave from Marshall’s Will is still unresolved.

Make sure you have covered everything in your Will

You do not have to be a celebrity to leave a problematic Will that has difficulties when applying for Probate. Lessons that can be learnt from these high-profile cases include ensuring that every bequest you wish to make is specifically detailed, updating your Will to take new circumstances into account and thinking very carefully about appointing your Executors.

The most vital lesson, however, is simple. Unlike Jimi Hendrix and Prince, ensure that you make a Will, otherwise you could be leaving serious problems for your heirs after your death. And, since life is unpredictable, it can never be too early to do so.

To avoid any of the Probate disasters described here, please get in touch with our Probate and Will experts today to discuss your options.

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