As always when a celebrity dies, a few days after news of the death you will find mentions of whether or not there was a will. Why? Who cares? And beyond the public’s curiosity, does it even matter if there was a will?
Yes, there are a lot of reasons why it matters, and here’s a few of those reasons.
- The public loves dirt. Wills are filed with the court and become public. So if a celebrity has a secret lover, or is disinheriting a child, or wants a long time employee to inherit everything, the public gets to know. They want a window into the private life of high profile people, and a will often gives them that. Which is precisely why most celebrities use trusts in addition to a will to protect their personal affairs. Trusts are not available to the public, and the particulars of who gets what stay private.
- We want to know if the celebrity was smart or not. Anyone with an estate over about six million dollars has the potential to pay federal estate taxes, a tax that is in addition to ordinary income taxes. Estate planning allows people with large estate to minimize the amount of estate tax paid when they die, in much the same way itemizing your tax returns can save on income taxes over simply taking the standard deduction. It’s perfectly legal and quite prudent to do what you can to minimize the estate tax owed, but if no will or any other planning has been done, the estate may pay large amounts to the federal government that could have gone to the heirs. When a celebrity dies without a will, it almost certainly means that “too much” will be paid in taxes.
- Lives are complicated, and not everyone you love is related by blood. When there is no will, the only people who can inherit are those related by blood (or adoption in most cases). Which blood relations inherit depends on the individual state laws, but no one who is not related can inherit from someone who is not a blood relation or a spouse at the time of the death. Celebrities with large estates have the means to spread their love around, and they often do . . . but the court cannot award anyone, even those who were clearly close and clearly financially dependent on a celebrity, anything not provided for in a will or trust.
- Are we going to remember the person, or the mess? The old saying “death is a part of life” doesn’t just mean that all life includes death. It also means that all the circumstances surrounding your own death become part of your life story. If your death without a will, or with a poorly written will, means that your name is forever after mentioned with a tag line that goes something like ” . . . and s/he left such a mess when s/he died,” then you have obscured the good things about your life for eternity. Who among us can think of Anna Nicole Smith without also thinking about the long and bizarre court battles over her estate? Who among us doesn’t have at least one relative who died without a will and caused all sorts of stress and problems for the family?
It’s too early to know if Prince’s life and work will be marred by ongoing stories about his estate, but by failing to write a will he certainly did not protect his legacy the way he protected his music during his long career. Even we less purple humans can protect what we have and those we love.