I never meant you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain.
“Purple Rain” by Prince and the Revolution.
Recently, millions mourned the passing of legendary musician Prince. Unmarried and childless, his death has many wondering who will inherit his money and who will manage his music and brand. During his lifetime, the entertainer was famously hands-on and protective of the distribution of his art. With a vast catalog of pop hits, a vault of valuable unpublished work, and substantial financial assets it was fair to assume that Prince had very specific, documented instructions for the transfer of his assets and handling of his legacy in the event of his passing. But it appears this may not have been the case.
Shortly after his death, Prince’s sister filed legal papers claiming she believed he died without a will. She has requested that a special administrator be appointed to manage his assets, value his estate, and determine the heirs. Could it be that Prince died without a will and did not establish one or more legal trusts for his assets? Time will tell. It is possible that a valid will eventually will be produced, but if his sister’s allegations are true, the resulting consequences and complications to his estate and legacy will be significant.
With proper estate planning anyone can determine how their inheritance will be distributed. Although Prince’s estate is unique, complex, and clearly required the advice and guidance of an experienced trusts and estates attorney, for most a simple will suffices. Unfortunately, it is all too common that people die without a will. According to LexisNexis and Legalzoom the majority of Americans do not have a will, and Prince would not be the first famous or wealthy person to die without one. Billionaire Howard Hughes, artist Pablo Picasso, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., entertainer and politician Sonny Bono, NFL quarterback Steve McNair, President Abraham Lincoln, and rock star Jimi Hendrix – to name just a few – were guilty of this omission.
Who decides what happens when someone dies without leaving behind a will (or a trust)? It is the state that determines how their assets are distributed. By default a state court, applying specific state laws known as “intestacy laws”, decides who stands to inherit the estate.
Intestacy laws vary by state and provide a road map courts must follow to determine the people who are entitled to inherit an estate. These laws are strictly applied and generally provide that the surviving family members who are most closely related to the decedent inherit the assets regardless of any other particular facts and circumstances. What if the decedent was in a long-term committed relationship but never married? What about common law marriage or other unconventional relationships? What about step children? Unfortunately, these loved ones are not generally recognized under the law. Sometimes intestacy law leads to the desired result, other times it produces results that differ dramatically from what the person would have intended.
In Prince’s case, failing to have a will or trust(s) in place leaves his musical legacy in the hands of the Minnesota courts and subject to Minnesota intestacy law. This is an outcome he surely did not intend. The process of resolving his estate could take years and likely will result in significant loss of value (estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars) in legal fees, administrative expenses, and taxes. With proper estate planning these costly issues could have been substantially reduced or avoided altogether.
The message from all of this is clear. Everyone with assets should have a will (or possibly a trust or series of trusts). A simple will is not expensive and offers peace of mind to you and to your loved ones.
There are many options for moving forward. Most people choose either to work with an estate planning attorney or to use online professional services, depending on their needs and budget. When choosing your path consider the time, cost, and details of your plan up front and act accordingly. Procrastination or inaction is not an option. Remember that dying without a will can lead to far greater costs in the form of disputes, unnecessary legal fees, and a longer (and more expensive) probate process.