Fall is starting soon and with it, Halloween celebrations. However, horror is not limited to one holiday. It can infiltrate your life and the lives of your loved ones anytime you die intestate (without a will). Impacts go well beyond the fun party-horror of Halloween. There are real consequences if you avoid estate planning.
The usual impacts of dying without a will have been discussed in detail in other articles. But real-life situations illustrate the point better. Here are three intestate horror stories of people who died before they signed a will.
Prince Rogers Nelson
Few people made it through the 1980’s without hearing about Prince. A talented musician known for his flamboyant fashion sense, he won seven Grammy Awards, one American Music Award, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award for his work in Purple Rain in the course of his career. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the first year he became eligible.
Prince was a fanatical organizer when it came to his numerous intellectual property rights and financial investments. When he died on April 21, 2016, the discovery that he never performed any estate planning was rather astounding considering the attention paid to other portions of his life.
The result was an estate estimated at $200 million and approximately 45 people coming forward claiming to be heirs. There were fraudulent claims, like an inmate in Colorado insisting that he was Prince’s son. (A DNA test invalidated the claim.) A niece and grandniece were also eliminated from the possibilities. In the end, a Carver County, Minnesota probate judge ruled six siblings and half-siblings as his official heirs. Although Prince had tense relationships with most of his siblings, that was never considered in the intestate proceeding. The judge had no choice but to strictly follow Minnesota’s statutes.
After one year, this is the only issue sorted out. There are still questions of who will eventually own his intellectual property rights, including the singer’s post-1995 catalog and unreleased material. Contracts remain in dispute and with that, there is no certain date of when heirs will take possession of his assets.
One of the most famous intestate deaths was Howard Hughes who passed away in 1976. A reclusive billionaire known for eccentric tendencies, he created a 34-year mess by passing away without any signs he made an effort towards estate planning.
Hughes did not have any direct descendants or immediate family to make this easier. Court authorities started with an extensive search for a will in a desperate attempt to wrap up his estate in an orderly fashion. Interviews with attorneys, banks, employees, and even the owners of hotels he frequently patronized revealed nothing. Newspaper classified ads basically begged for someone to come forward with a will and in a last-ditch effort, even a psychic was involved. It became abundantly clear that this estate was about to become an intestate nightmare.
Despite claims that Hughes hated his family and did not want them to benefit from his estate, the court still considered potential heirs. Distant cousins came out of the woodwork and before long, Nevada, California, and Texas authorities came forward to insist that Hughes owed state taxes and that his estate needed to be managed in those jurisdictions. Women claiming to be former spouses also filed claims although there were no marriage records on file.
In the end, 200 distant relatives benefited from the estate, collectively receiving $1.5 billion. Liquidation of assets continued until 2010 when the whole matter finally concluded.
Simon the Client
While there are numerous examples of famous people dying without wills (intestate), it is not just the talented and wealthy who need to draft estate plans. Regular working class, middle class and even “poor” people can leave nightmares for their loved ones if they do not have an Oregon draft a will for them to sign. One example was an estate this office handled years ago: It belonged to a client we will call “Simon.”
Simon was single with no children or grandchildren. He was an only child. His parents were gone, leaving him with no immediate relatives. Despite living an active life, he died unexpectedly at home at age 53.
Yes, Simon had assets. His modest home and one four-year-old car were owned free-and-clear. He had a live-in girlfriend for the last 10 years named Mary. A search of Simon’s safety deposit box after his death revealed what he BELIEVED TO BE a will, leaving everything to Mary. But it was not correctly witnessed and notarized. The probate court could not honor it.
That left the distribution of Simon’s estate to Oregon statutes. Since there is no room for intestate inheritance to unmarried partners, the house and car were liquidated with money passed on to distant relatives. The second cousins who benefited from the estate never had a relationship with him. Indeed, the executor (AKA personal representative) chosen by the court to manage the probate process, was a second cousin who had not seen him for 40 years.
Even though the unenforceable will made it clear that Simon wanted everything to go to Mary, the court could not honor it. Mary filed a dispute and held up the estate for eight months. In the end, she did not prevail and was evicted from Simon’s house.
Single adults who are estranged from living family have the most to lose by not having a will. However, there are no disadvantages to a will even if your situation is stable. If you are married, there is always the possibility that you and your spouse will die in the same incident. You cannot assume your spouse takes care of everything when you die–you must make allowances in case you are both gone. That is how a will can save your loved ones a lot of stress.
Avoid creating your own intestate horror story and make an appointment to draft a will that is enforceable in Oregon. Gruber & Associates, P.C. serves Washington, Multnomah, Marion, and Clackamas counties and can get you started. Contact us to schedule a consultation.