Estate Planning: Learn From Celebrity Errors

Dennis Hopper's widow Victoria Duffy (pictured left) is in a heated estate battle with her adult stepchildren that is an extension of the legal wranglings that started when Hopper filed for divorce in January -- a divorce that wasn't final by the time the 74-year-old actor's death in May from complications of prostate cancer, as discussed in HousingWatch's "Dennis Hopper Heirs Sell to Give Widow Hell."

Unresolved divorces can spill over into a fight among heirs, says legacy attorney Andrew Mayoras, co-author with his wife, Danielle, of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!"(Wise Circle Books), which uses celebrity inheritance catastrophes and courtroom clashes over estate contests as a way to give advice to families.

Had Hopper acted more quickly, estate issues would already be clear to his heirs. They are fighting over whether or not Duffy gets to remain living in one of the four houses on his 15,500-square-foot Venice, Calif. property, as well as who gets what percentage of the estate, ownership of artwork, insurance payouts, and a monthly stipend for expenses for the family horse, among other issues.

But such issues are not limited to millionaires. "It all depends on the will, trust and how the various assets and investments are held," says Mayoras. Below are some tips from the Mayorases, to help keep this from happening to you or your loved ones who are in multiple-marriage families.
First, take the case of Sonny Bono, the actor-singer-turned-politician who was 62 years old when he unexpectedly died in a 1998 skiing accident. Bono did not have a will or a trust. His widow, fourth wife Mary Whitaker, endured lots of complications because of Bono's lack of planning.

On the other hand, actress Brittany Murphy, who died at age 32 in December 2009, did things the right way. Murphy updated her estate plan, will and trust, after her marriage to Simon Monjack, with a provision that Monjack said he asked Murphy to include. It stated: "I am married to Simon Monjack who I have intentionally left out of this will."

"That provision was important because, without it, Monjack may still have inherited some of her assets as a "pretermitted spouse," Mayoras wrote in a blog. "By specifically mentioning and disinheriting her husband, Murphy made sure that her estate went to only to her mother. This language was critical to make sure her wishes were followed (rather than those of the State of California)."

In order to find out if your loved ones have done their estate planning, recommends Danielle Mayoras, begin a conversation with stories of celebrity estates as a
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way to turn the uncomfortable topic of wills and trusts into something entertaining. Here are four ways to get you started:

1. Bring the celebrities home for the holidays.

If your family member (mom, dad, sister, aunt, grandma) is reluctant to talk about wills and trusts, begin by sharing some anecdotes about celebrity estate planning. Start with a story about Ray Charles. He sat his entire family down (which included 12 kids from 9 different mothers!) and discussed what he planned for his estate after his passing. Encourage your loved ones to talk to each other like Ray Charles.

2. Confirm that they have finished what they started.

If your family members have said they've started a will or say they plan to, follow up with them. Are they sure that they dotted their i's and crossed their t's? Share the stories of Heath Ledger who failed to update his will after his daughter was born, and Michael Jackson who caused his family unnecessary trips to the courthouse because he did not properly "fund" his trust. If your loved ones have a will or trust, has it been updated recently? Have they transferred their assets into their trust? It's not enough to just "do" the documents, they need to be done the right way and updated with new laws and life changes.

3. Verify that the attorney is a specialist.

"Yes," your loved ones respond, "we just saw our attorney and updated everything." But does their attorney specialize in estate planning? If not, going to the attorney to update the documents may not be enough. Does the attorney use "one size fits all" forms, or customize the documents to your loved one's needs?

Also, make sure that you have the name of the attorney and other professionals in the event that your loved ones unexpectedly pass away.

4. Establish the location of the documents.

So, your loved ones have done their documents, updated them, and worked with a specialist, but that doesn't do the family any good if you cannot find them! Share the story of Olympic athlete Florence Griffith Joyner. Her original estate planning documents were never located and as a result it cost her family a lot of time, money, grief and uncertainty. Make sure that your loved ones tell you where those critical documents are located and that the trustee or executor can access them. There's no point in hiding the will or trust so well that no one can find them -- or worse -- putting them in a safe deposit box that no one can get into!

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