Months ago the untimely death of the famous Purple Prince was devastating news for the many of us who loved his music. Once the news broke, social media was instantly flooded with tributes and dedications to his undeniable musical genius. For many days I listened to all-Prince, all-the-time, reliving endless lifetime memories forever weaved together by his songs. He was forever gone, leaving much of the world heartbroken.
For weeks after his passing, previously unrevealed and little-known details about Prince began to surface. He apparently had a medical history of epilepsy, degenerative arthritis, and opioid abuse. Who knew? More interesting, though, were his alleged beliefs related to his religion of choice, and wild government conspiracy theories involving chemtrails and manganese poisoning. Hmmm. Some of the rumors were pretty out there. How much latitude should be allotted to a genius of such magnitude? Is fame that isolating?
Eventually the other shoe dropped – a Minnesota district judge confirmed that Mr. Prince Rodgers Nelson had no valid will. I lost my Prince lovin’ mind! Prince died intestate – without a will. How could he? Is it possible his genius was limited to music? WTF Prince? Seriously, W.T.F.?
Sadly, the scenario of dying without a will is all-too-common. According to numerous surveys, a majority of American adults die without a will.
64% of people age 18 – 64+
62% of people age 45 – 54
51% of people age 55 – 64
Most intestate people claim to lack any will-writing urgency. Some don’t think they even need a will, while others simply don’t want to think about death and dying. Gimme a break! It is impossible to ignore that we live in unpredictable times. This is a world where human lives are routinely taken without warning and much too soon. Sticking your head in the sand doesn’t make it all go away.
Everyone needs a will. Whether you’re young, old, healthy, sick – just make a will already! Why? There are a lot of reasons but three biggies are:
- Your minor children (if you have any) need an appointed guardian – otherwise the state decides who they go to, and they could easily choose someone you do not want raising your children.
- Ensure your assets (pets, heirlooms, collectibles) go to specific people.
- Leave money to charity.
Death without a will leaves a mess for those you leave behind. When you die in the U.S. without a valid will, the distribution of all your property, and disposition of minor children, are decided according to your state’s intestate succession laws. Which means, your state government decides who gets what, typically in order of closest relatives. Even if your wishes were “known” or considered “common knowledge”? Yep. No exceptions!
So you don’t want to write a will? Fine, your family will need to familiarize themselves with some of the following words.
Vocabulary for the Un-Willing
Intestate: Died without a valid will
Intestate Succession: Who gets your stuff depending on your state laws.
Probate: Legal process that takes place after you die in which 1) the absence of a valid will is verified because you couldn’t be bothered to write one 2) outstanding debts are paid and 3) remaining assets are transferred for distribution.
Net Estate: Amount leftover for distribution after all your debts, taxes, and administrative expenses are paid.
Administrator: Person, possibly a complete stranger, who is appointed by the court to manage and distribute your assets. Again, because you couldn’t be bothered to write a will in which you would name a trusted person to be the executor to do this job.
Escheatment: When property goes to the government in the absence of any legal heirs.
If you plan to die without a will make sure you and your family have an idea what procedures are practiced by the state in which you live.
The Uniform Probate Code (UPC) has been adopted by 20 states and provides a good general example of the order in which who gets what according to next of kin, aka descendants or heirs.
- Surviving spouse
- Children – adopted children are considered the same as biological
- Brothers and sisters and their descendants
- Grandparents and their descendants
- If no qualified heirs exist, then assets escheat to the state
* Parents or spouses guilty of abandonment are disqualified heirs.
** Individuals like “best friend”, “live-in boyfriend”, “foster child I raised as my own”, “my favorite charitable cause” are not considered descendants and can’t inherit anything in the absence of a will.
HINT: If you have specific wishes that extend beyond family lineage, you’re gonna need a valid will.
Willing and Able
Got the picture? Life is uncertain. Mortality is fleeting. Blah blah, blah – stop procrastinating and write your will.
A simple lawyer-drafted will should probably cost only a few hundred dollars. There are very affordable legal services to get the task completed which is always a good idea, especially if your estate is complicated or you intend to set up any kind of trust.
Not a fan of lawyers in general? Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a lawyer to write a will. You can find free templates online to help you do it on your own – just make sure you validate your will according to your state requirements. Also consider having an attorney review any DIY will once it’s completed to confirm validity of the document.
Free and DIY Willing
Do Your Own Will – free
Do It Yourself Document – free
Rocket Lawyer – monthly fee
Legal Zoom – monthly fee
Quicken – $50
Will Creator Deluxe – $30
Willful Words of Wisdom – ALWAYS:
- Make sure your will meets your state requirements
- Sign and date your will.
- Signatures from two or three witnesses are usually required in most states, and/or may depend on the type of will you have. Better to be safe than sorry to have your will declared invalid – ALWAYS have witnesses sign, no matter what. *Important Note: witnesses must be disinterested, meaning someone who doesn’t stand to benefit from the will.
- Notarize your will. If you and your witnesses sign in front of a notary – you’ll have a self-proving will. This is not required but it helps move the will through probate faster by removing any question as to signature authenticity. Again, not required – but invaluable to have!
- Update your will as needed – marriage, divorce, birth of children, changes in assets, and relocation to a different state or country. You don’t always need to rewrite the will to update it – add an addendum or amendment (a “codicil“), but make sure all additional forms are signed and dated, with witnesses and preferably notarized.
International probate laws are a completely different ball game. If you own property in a foreign country, make sure your will meets both your state requirements and the requirements of that specific country. For example: forced heirship is a law seen in many foreign countries, which requires that a certain percent of an estate MUST go to blood relation. It is supposedly used in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, Latin America and the extremely exotic state of LOUISIANA!
Types of Wills – all must be signed, dated, and have witnesses!
Typed – Standard typed format. Drafted by you, a low-cost legal service or a fancy-schmancy estate lawyer. Accepted in all states in this format – as long as it meets your other state requirements.
Nuncupative – Spoken/dictated, from a “death-bed”. Accepted in some states, but almost exclusively for service men and women on active duty.
Holographic – Handwritten – completely in your own handwriting, not typed. Accepted in a few states even when written on a notepad, napkin or the back of a utility bill.
Video – Video wills sound like a great idea but are rarely acceptable on their own and should always be accompanied by a signed legal document that meets your state requirements to ensure validity.
Videos can always be used in conjunction with a valid will to prove mental capacity, or to explain a will’s content and any decision-making processes in unique circumstances. There is even an app for that! The website and app yourlastwill.net is a light-tech way to leave public or private video messages for your loved ones to view at any time. It’s not a valid will but it is a sweet and mindful personal shout-out from the hereafter. If you check out the site and watch any of the posted public videos – keep the Kleenex handy!
Royal Lessons from Hot Pants
Prince may have dropped the baton, but historically music royalty has had a decent track record for estate planning. (Here’s hoping Aretha knows who’s zoomin’ who before her journey ends.) Elvis, Michael Jackson and James Brown certainly made specific estate plans. However, James hit a rather funky snag, worthy of a cold sweat.
James Brown died with a will in 2006, at the age of 73. The Godfather of Soul put a heap of thought and time into some very impressive estate planning years before he died. He set up a number of trusts, with appointed trustees, personal representatives, and even successors for those positions as needed. His intentions were clear – including a clause declaring that anyone who tried to contest the will would get nothing. Everything was meticulously executed including a self-affirming affidavit, witnessed and notarized. The will was completed in 2000.
However, in 2001 James got married and had another child. He did not take the opportunity to add an addendum to the will to acknowledge these additional heirs, or clarify whether he planned to bequeath these additional heirs anything at all.
This was super bad! After putting all that effort into drafting the perfect document, he just got up offa that thang and the result has been years of litigation that landed his heirs in South Carolina Supreme Court, and the feud is still going on. No one feels good!
Hot Pants Lesson One: Failure to update your will due to changed circumstances or even a change of heart can render the most impressive document questionable.
Hot Pants Lesson Two: The more complicated a will is, the more likely it is you’ll need to update it regularly.
Hot Pants Lesson Three: If you want to write a will and forget about it, but expect it to stand the test of time, then use language that provides clarity and flexibility to permit for inclusion of subsequent spouses, children and grandchildren.
The Intestate and Famous
Responsible documentation may not have been Prince’s forte, which is moderately ironic considering his historical dispute with Warner Brothers – didn’t he learn the importance of protecting what belongs to him? Regardless, Prince joins an impressive list of the famously unprepared. All of whom left their heirs at odds with each other claiming inheritance rights to massive estates in hideous chaos.
The idea that Abraham Lincoln, Howard Hughes, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Sonny Bono, Amy Winehouse and plenty of others could die without a will is very perplexing.
What are really mind-blowing are the family rifts, millions of dollar spent on legal fees, and years of mayhem created when some celebrities kicked the bucket without a last will and testament.
Pablo Picasso died without a will in 1973 at the age of 91, leaving behind an estate worth what would be considered today to be approximately $1.3 billion. After a six-year battle costing $30 million in legal fees, the estate was divided between his six heirs. They continue to fight with each other today, over everything from the rights to his likeness to the use of the Picasso name. Picasso once said, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” Forgive me Pablo, but that sounds like a lot of bull!
Bob Marley died without a will in 1981 at the age of 36, despite an eight-month battle with cancer. He certainly had time to prepare a will, but reportedly did not believe in the concept of death and thus found no point in making a will to manage his $130 million fortune. Problem? Umm,…ya man. Most artists’ estates continue to produce income for decades after they are gone – literally millions of dollars in royalties roll in each year. The many Marley heirs have been at war for 35 years and are still going strong today. No Bob – every little thing has not been alright.
Martin Luther King Jr. died without a will in 1968 at the age of 39, leaving less than $30,000 but also a historical legacy that has generated millions. Now, 48 years after his death, the three surviving King children are in court debating the sale of Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize and travel bible. Seeing his children at odds over his belongings almost 50 years after his death – was probably not part of his dream.
We will never know Prince’s final wishes. The paisley party is over – let the legal games begin! Currently at least a dozen people are claiming rights to Mr. Nelson’s still growing fortune. Perhaps his heirs will find comfort in knowing he never meant to cause them any sorrow, he never meant to cause them any pain – but this is shaping up to be a long drawn-out ugly purple pain. Not a soul is laughing in his probate rain.
Trauma is the leading cause of death for people 45 and younger in America. Meaning, death won’t always send a save-the-date card, and wills don’t write themselves. If you don’t already have one, what are you waiting for? The task is far from gruesome, and you may possibly find that having a last will and testament of your very own provides you with genuine relief, comfort and piece of mind. And no, you can’t take it with you.
“I’m kidding about having only a few dollars. I might have a few dollars more.” ~ J. Brown
Have a happy healthy everything!