Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Wills of the People

When Grammy and Academy Award-winning musician Prince (née Prince Rogers Nelson) passed away last week at age 57, his fans around the world were shocked at the sudden loss. This week, it was alleged in court filings that the famed entertainer died without preparing a will – this time, sending a shock through the legal community. Prince's estate is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions, including his lucrative songwriting catalog (which Prince controlled after decades of legal wrangling with record labels). Prince was unmarried and had no living parents or children (his only son, with ex-wife Mayte Garcia, died shortly after his 1996 birth). Tyka Nelson, Prince's sister, has petitioned a Minnesota court for control of the entertainer's estate. (Prince also has five half-siblings, which the ABA Journal notes are treated as full siblings under Minnesota probate law.)

While it's surprising that Prince would die intestate after a career marked by legal battles over control of his intellectual property, he is hardly alone in neglecting to create a will. An oft-quoted statistic maintains that more than half of Americans – 55% – die without a will or estate plan in place. Even other celebrities occasionally ignore estate planning until it's too late – the do-it-yourself website LegalZoom published a list of 10 Famous People Who Died Without a Will, including musicians Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley as well as artist Pablo Picasso.

Want to see a particular celebrity's will (assuming they made one)? You might need to do some legwork. The Living Trust Network contains more than 40 reproductions of Wills of the Rich and Famous, including documents from pop stars (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston), actors (Katharine Hepburn, Heath Ledger), and even presidents (John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon). A Century of Celebrity Wills, by probate attorney Herbert E. Nass, describes and quotes the estate plans of some notable historical figures. But many celebrity wills can be found only in the records of the court where they were filed – and not necessarily available online. (David Bowie, who died earlier this year, is one such example – details of his will were described in the New York Times, but records of the Manhattan Surrogate's Court are not available online.)

To learn more about the basics of estate planning, take a look at the American Bar Association's Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law, which offers a helpful Frequently Asked Questions section on estate planning. Unsurprisingly, the ABA cautions against using "do-it-yourself" will websites or forms, but does include a helpful discussion of the situations which are more likely to require professional assistance. Consumer Reports also found in 2012 that self-service will-making websites can result in unintended legal consequences for all but the simplest estate plans.

For more information on estate planning resources, search the Duke Libraries catalog for "Estate planning – United States" or Ask a Librarian.