Prince's death has left many of us in shock, including those of us in the surety bond industry. We are accustomed to other not knowing everything about probate bonds, but it is sometimes a stark reminder that probate can come up on anybody, including the wealthy and famous.
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Probate Is Needed
When Prince died with no known will, many were shocked that a man who exercised so much control over his music and the rights to it ignored who would take over his estate.
“He was such a private guy who fought for the rights to his music that you would think he would want to avoid a public battle in probate court,” said Mike Smith, a partner and estate planning attorney at Larkin Hoffman in Bloomington.
Individuals who work with a lawyer to create a revocable trust can usually avoid probate court, where records are public knowledge. But if Prince, with a reported $100-million-plus estate, didn’t see the need for a will, what about us mere mortals? Do we really need a will?
Financial planning experts say the taxes and financial hassle of probate ought to be enough to convince anyone, even those with average-sized estates.
Dennis Bakken, 53, said several factors led him to an estate planner recently. His wife’s father died a year ago without a will, and the estate is just coming out of probate more than a year later. “My wife and I finally reached a tipping point. Yes, we’d rather buy a Harley, go shopping or go to the lake than do a will and trust,” he said. “It’s not fun or glamorous, but I expect a sense of peace when it’s done.”
What are the consequences of dying without a will?
Steve Helseth, a wills and trust attorney for Bolt Hoffer Boyd in Anoka, describes it as missed opportunities for control and assets, support for charities that can decrease a tax bill, and an avoidance of challenges to the estate by family members and oral contracts.
“Like the guy in California claiming a $1 billion interest in Prince’s estate,” Helseth said. For the typical person, the worst consequence is siblings, spouses from second marriages and adult children elbowing for control.
Laura Zwicker, an estate attorney with Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles, said that stars are really no different from the rest of us. “Their estate numbers are bigger, but it goes back to the something we can all relate to — our own mortality — and it’s hard to face that,” she said.
Prince put himself in good company among celebrities who have died without a will — Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse and Pablo Picasso.
More than half of Americans are believed to die without a will. And nearly 40 percent of those with investable assets of $1 million or more have not established an estate plan, according to a survey of 750 millionaires conducted last year by Spectrem Group for CNBC.
Zwicker has no doubt that lawyers worked hard to get Prince’s estate plan locked in. “It’s a very difficult situation where there’s no direct access,” she said. “You’re working through a business manager, but if the client doesn’t want to focus on the issue, you can’t force their hand.”
What makes Prince’s lack of a will surprising is that things he valued — charitable giving and control of his music — may be lost in probate.
“Prince was philanthropic,” Smith said. “He had a choice between Uncle Sam, charities and his siblings, and he apparently didn’t make it.”
Bakken, who lives in Blaine, started estate planning by attending a community education class on trusts and wills in Anoka. Various classes taught by attorneys for about $50 each can help adults write their wills. The classes for writing basic wills are usually for people with assets of less than $500,000, but they’re a significant savings compared with the $1,000 fee that many lawyers charge for writing a will from scratch. If a trust is needed, the price increases to $2,500 or more based on complexity.
Helseth, who teaches community education classes such as “Understanding Estate Planning and Trusts, “Writing a Will” and “Keeping the Cabin in the Family,” said that when adults in class have more complex situations, he offers a free consultation, as most estate planning attorneys do. Situations such as a blended family, children with special needs or the exclusion of an expected beneficiary for various reasons usually require a lawyer’s involvement.
Do-it-yourselfers can pay next to nothing with forms printed from the Internet, but attorneys say such forms or a hastily written will dashed out on a cocktail napkin can often cause more problems than no will because of inconsistency or incompleteness.
Christopher Burns, an estate planning attorney at Henson Efron in Minneapolis, knew a client who wrote his own will, leaving everything to his second wife in the first paragraph and then everything to his kids in the second paragraph. “He thought it meant one thing, but it didn’t say that,” Burns said. “It will be contested.”
Some well-intentioned consumers create a will using preprinted forms, software or a class and then ask a lawyer to look it over, but most attorneys won’t go for it.
“It ends up taking the same amount of time as if you were starting from scratch,” said Janet Portman, executive editor at Nolo Press, which created the popular WillMaker software. A lawyer needs to know all of the questions that went into forming a document, and they need to ask the client the same ones.
More than 3 million people have purchased WillMaker. Portman said the software is fine-tuned to identify when a person needs to see a lawyer. She gave the example of a couple who want to give $100,000 to their son Alex for law school. They would be better hiring a lawyer to put the request in a trust document with a trustee who can dole out the money when and if Alex goes to law school, instead of a will, she said.
Are Minnesotans reacting to Prince’s lack of estate planning? Helseth, the Anoka attorney, says yes.
“They’re talking about it at the family barbecue, the Rotary Club and the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce meeting,” he said. “Suddenly, wills and estate planning are a topic everyone wants to learn about.”