There’s something about watching celebrities acting like “real people” and making mistakes that seems to appeal to viewers, as proven by the continuing popularity of reality TV shows. A Forbes article on “What We Can Learn From Celebrity Estate Planning Gone Wrong” shows that the estate planning foibles of the rich and famous are no exception – there’s already a show revolving around this very topic called “The Will: Family Secrets Revealed!” Apart from its entertainment value, the article points out that there are actual lessons that we can learn from the top celebrity estate planning mistakes:

(1) Do not wait to write your will. Life can be short and unpredictable. Sonny Bono failed to write a will, creating a messy situation for his widow, ex-wives, and children, including a child he secretly fathered out of wedlock. Jimi Hendrix was single and only 27 years old when he passed away. Since he died without a will, state law passed on all of his assets to his father. His father eventually left everything to an adopted daughter and gave nothing to Jimi’s brother (with whom Jimi had a close relationship).

(2) Create a will if you are not legally married. Stieg Larsson’s girlfriend ended up with nothing, as Swedish Law awarded his estate to his father and brother in the absence of a will.

(3) Make sure your will is legal and in writing. Marlon Brando made several promises to Angela Borlaza, but failed to put it in writing. Princess Di left a “letter of wishes,” which was not completely carried out since it was not a legal document.

(4) Do not rely on DIY wills. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger tried to write his own will – and failed miserably, leaving his family with a heavy burden of $450,000 in estate taxes.

(5) Make sure your heirs know where to find your will. Florence “FloJo” Griffith Joyner’s will was only found and filed after the 30-day limit from the time of her death, leading to court disputes between her husband and mother.

(6) Update your estate planning documents after every life event change. Heath Ledger did not update his will when his daughter was born, prompting a media circus as his family fought over his estate.

(7) Make sure your trust is properly funded. Michael Jackson did not fully fund his trust, leaving his famous family to duke it out in probate court.

(8) Choose your executor, trustee, or guardian wisely. Doris Duke named her butler as her estate’s executor and as the trustee of her charitable foundation. His questionable lifestyle and spendthrift ways became the object of speculation and controversy.

(9) Take steps to avoid having your mental competency questioned. Take a cue from Leona Helmsley and Etta James, who both fought with their family members over their “mental competency.” Ensure that your estate planning is done while you are still young and in full control of your mental faculties. If possible, have a lawyer perform a mini-evaluation to confirm that you are of sound mind when you prepared your legal documents.

The bottom line is that if these famous stars with their unlimited funds and resources can make mistakes, then so can you. Always make sure that your estate planning is complete, legal, and properly funded. Consult an estate planning attorney for complex family situations. At the end of the day, everyone – from the average Joe to the rich and famous – just want to make sure their wishes are carried out and that their family members are provided for at the time of their passing.


(Image courtesy of john antoni)