Last Will and Testament

Celebrities Who Died Without a Will

Here’s a common misconception – only rich and famous people need an Estate Plan, i.e. Wills, Trusts and Powers of Attorney. So, we’re shocked to hear about celebrities dying without so much as a simple Will. Most of us, whether famous or normal, rich or middle class, have a hard time coming to terms with our own mortality and accepting that one day we’ll have one last remaining choice – ashes to ashes or dust to dust – or cremation vs. burial. Ironically, even THAT has to be in writing!

Whether we plan effectively for Life’s inevitable outcomes or not, life simply happens. Life is a terminal condition – nobody gets out alive. So, why do so many of us fail to plan, knowing that the inevitable outcome involves lawyers and judges in Probate Court? To make matters worse, it’s common to see family members embroiled in conflict over money, possessions – even that alleged Love Child from the ‘60s. It can be a full-blown circus – often so bizarre you could charge admission! Tabloid sales skyrocket when a celebrity dies without a plan because we are addicted to train wrecks – and what a train wreck dying unprepared can be!

Depending on where you live, your estate could be forced into Probate whether you own very little or a lot at your death. When in doubt, find out, educate yourself! We’re aware of a family whose Probate was started 5 years ago and is still not complete. Another family waited 40 years to even start the Probate process because they couldn’t agree on anything.

Probate is not only expensive and time-consuming, it’s a public process, so anyone can ‘look you up’ and see what you own and what you owe. They can even make a claim against your estate in Probate Court: “So-and-so promised me $20k when I helped her out of a jam 15 years ago, and I’m here to collect.” Probate lasts roughly 15 months on average and can be of indeterminate cost. Keep in mind that even modest estate can take more than a year to settle. That’s a year or more during which your loved ones are tied up in grief and burdened with sorting out your affairs.

At the very least, you’ll want to create Medical and Financial Powers of Attorney to support you in the event of incapacity, along with a Will to address Guardianship for any minor or special needs children. By contrast, if you die “intestate,” i.e., without a Will, your State will make those and other very important decisions for you. Let’s check out a few celebrities that died without a will and see the effects of their failure to plan.

#1 Aretha Franklin

Aretha died in 2018 at age 76 from pancreatic cancer. According to Forbes, her net worth was around $80 million at the time of her death. She was survived by four sons, one of whom, Clarence, had special needs due to disability. Aretha was known to be very private and secretive about her personal affairs.

Unbeknownst to anyone, Aretha had created a handwritten Will – three of them, in fact! But at the time of her death, none of her Wills could be found, so the Court exercised its judicial powers and appointed her Cousin, Sabrina Owens, to serve as the Executor of the Estate. Under Michigan’s Laws of Intestacy – Probate without a Will – her estate was divided equally among her four sons.

Moths later, however, three handwritten Wills were discovered in her home, including one hidden under the cushions of her sofa. The three wills contained inconsistent provisions, and none has been authenticated. The most recently dated Will (2014) named her oldest son, Kecalf Cunningham, as Executor, and directed him and his two brothers to ‘take care’ of their disabled brother. But no mention was made as to who would inherit her estate as beneficiaries. The New York Times reported that a year after her passing, family members were still battling each other in court to validate the handwritten 2014 Will, and the family has been urged by the Probate Judge to settle their differences through mediation. Even though it has been more than a year since she passed, it’s impossible to say just how long it will take to settle her estate.

#2 Prince

Singer and musician, Prince died in 2016 at the age of 57. According to court filings, his estate could be worth more than $200 million. Despite being surrounded by astute legal and business advisors, Prince had no estate plan in place. And as one might expect, multiple people came out of the woodwork claiming to be an unknown ex-wife, child, sibling, and random distant relatives. A probate judge ruled that his sister and five half-siblings would be named as heirs to his fortune. Even so, 3 years after his death, the estate is still unsettled, with his heirs disputing nearly $45 million dollars in settlement costs, including $10 million in legal fees. The probate process is ongoing due to several claimants filing appeals to be named as rightful heirs to the fortune.

#3 Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of 27. Because she failed to create an estate plan, after a year of probate, her parents were named as beneficiaries of her estate. Her estate, initially valued at $6,700,000, was reduced by almost $2 million in fees and taxes. Amy is a great example of why all successful people, regardless of age, should create an estate plan. When we’re young, we’re far less likely to imagine we’ll ever need to plan due to incapacity or death. Who’s to say Amy didn’t want to provide for her brother, or a favorite charity. Even her ex-husband who some claimed she still loved very deeply, despite his own issues with addiction. Without a Will or a Trust, knowing what she would have wanted would be impossible.

#4 James Brown

James Brown died in 2006, and his estate remains unsettled to this day. Challenges and legal disputes between Brown’s children, grandchildren, and his wife remain unsettled. As executor of Brown’s estate, his wife is being sued by his children who claim they were never legally married, among other claims. Due to these and many other challenges to his “Celebrity will” l, the battle has lasted more than a dozen years, with no end in sight.

Post Mortem

These are just a few of the many celebrities who have passed away without a plan in place, leaving in their wake feuding family, messy financial and legal battles and no clear path to a fair settlement.

When it comes to Life Planning, many famous people fail to plan just like the rest of us, leaving behind a mess for loved ones, lawyers and judges to sort out and clean up. No matter the size of your estate, a well-designed and fully implemented plan is worth far more than the cost. The alternative is a HUGE waste of time and resources. For assistance with your Life Plan, schedule a no-cost, no-obligation consultation at or call (480) 451-7727.
Talk soon!

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