The Consequences of Dying Without a Will

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Amy Winehouse
AP
Real-estate developer Roman Blum wasn't famous during his lifetime. But when the 97-year-old died in 2012, he quickly became famous for something he failed to do during his lifetime: write a will. Or, if he did write one, he neglected to leave it where someone could find it.

Blum, a Holocaust survivor with no living family members, passed away with an estate worth nearly $40 million. It is the largest unclaimed estate in the history of the state of New York, and unless the court-overseen administrator of his assets finds relatives through a genealogist search, every penny could end up going to the state government.

Legacies Left in Limbo

Millions of people don't have wills, never considering the consequences of their actions on the family members and friends who survive them.

Fortunately, getting a will in place doesn't have to be complicated; even a simple will is enough to express your intent for who should receive your assets after your death. Moreover, if you have minor children, wills allow you to name a guardian for them that will avoid any uncertainty about who you want to care for them if something happens to you.

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At the same time you get your will done, you should also consider some other valuable estate-planning documents. Living wills and health-care proxies can give doctors and family members more guidance on how you want your medical care handled if you're incapacitated, while a durable power of attorney allows a trusted person to handle your finances when you can't. Here's a rundown of the 10 important documents you should have.

You may not be as rich or famous as the celebrities below, but their lives -- and deaths -- offer a cautionary tale for what can happen when you die intestate. Making a will might seem like a chore, but getting it done will go a long way toward avoiding family feuds after your death and having your memory overshadowed by discord among your loved ones.

The Consequences of Dying Without a Will
Like many young people, 27-year-old singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse didn't have a will when she died in 2011. With an estate worth roughly $4.7 million, Winehouse's parents ended up claiming her assets after her death. Although Winehouse had been married to Blake Fielder-Civil in 2007, they were legally divorced in 2009, and without any children, Winehouse's parents were entitled under British law to the entire estate.
Guitar hero Jimi Hendrix died without a will in 1970, and ever since, his estate has had to deal with a family fight. Hendrix's father ended up taking over the estate as the next of kin, but Hendrix's brother fought over rights to use Hendrix's name and images for decades. Part of the reason for the ongoing battle: Hendrix's estate continues to generate income from music royalties and other sources, and publicity rights remain extremely valuable.
The author of the popular novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its Millennium Trilogy sequels died nine years ago at the age of 50, but he didn't leave a will. As a result, the laws that govern people without wills in Sweden gave his substantial estate to his father and his brother, cutting out life-companion Eva Gabrielsson. Despite a long battle that dealt not only with financial issues but also with Gabrielsson's criticism of changes made to the novels after Larsson's death, the popularity of Larsson's work will likely continue to raise the issue of his estate's earnings in the future.
When he died 10 years ago at age 58, Grammy Award-winner Barry White didn't have a valid will despite having suffered a long history of illnesses. The famous singer's second wife and widow, Glodean James, was named administrator of White's estate, despite their having been separated. But Katherine Denton, who was White's longtime girlfriend and the mother of White's daughter Barianna, claimed that she was owed money and assets from the estimated $20 million estate to fulfill promises that White allegedly made to her. In addition, disputes between James and White's first wife complicated matters further.
Entertainer and politician Sonny Bono died 15 years ago without a will. As a result, both then-wife Mary Bono and ex-wife Cher ended up making competing claims to his estate. On top of that, a person who claimed to be Sonny's son also argued that he was entitled to collect.
Aviator and film producer Howard Hughes was the man behind the movie "Hell's Angels" and had a storied life as a business giant, but he continued to generate drama after his death in 1976. Although a purported will called for the estate to be split among charitable organizations, corporate managers, and current and former family members, a Nevada court ruled that the document was a forgery and declared it invalid. As a result, the multibillion-dollar estate went to 22 cousins, with proceedings taking about seven years to resolve. Moreover, actress Terry Moore, who claimed that she married Hughes, got a settlement from the estate in 1984.
Even if you're not a celebrity and don't have a celebrity's fortune, you owe it to your loved ones to make sure you have a will. For more on wills and estate planning, check out this list of the important documents you should have.
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