For many, estate planning is "the forbidden topic," dry and uncomfortable. Trusts, wills and beneficiaries are subjects many opt to put off for another day. How to get the conversation started? Danielle and Andy Mayoras, husband and wife lawyers, found inspiration in, of all people, tabloid fixture Anna Nicole Smith, whose elderly billionaire husband died without leaving her anything in his will. "The granddaddy of all probate litigation," as Andy calls it, lasted for 15 years. Both Smith and her husband's son, whom she was suing, died in the interim. But the courtroom wrangling continued.
To the Mayorases, this was a teachable moment. "Always update your documents following a life event, be it a second marriage, a divorce, or the birth of a child," Danielle said.
The couple wrote a book, Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights…and what you can learn from celebrity errors, which has been adapted for a PBS special to air nationally beginning in November. In a joint interview with Millionaire Corner, the couple shared what the sad and sometimes strange cases of Tony Curtis, Heath Ledger, Gary Coleman and others can teach us about estate planning.
Considering the importance of getting one's estate in order, why is there such reluctance? ""It's a topic a lot of families have difficulty talking about," Andy said. "So many just don't want to think about it. Two-thirds of adults don't even have a will. (This book) was a way to get that dialogue started and to get people thinking about this issue."
"Many families also think they get along great (so there won't be any problems dividing family assets) or they don't think they have enough money to worry about it," Danielle added. "When all is said and done, though, none of those are good excuses."
"It's easy to procrastinate," Andy said. "It's no fun thinking about planning for what happens after you die. It's an easy thing to put on the back burner, but as the recent tragic death of Amy Winehouse illustrates, no one is promised tomorrow."
Another example is Sonny Bono, who died in a skiing accident at the age of 62. "His estate went through all kinds of complications because he died without a will," Andy said. "Our goal is to get people young and old to get their estates in order. No matter how much or little you have, most people want to control who it's going to go to when they pass away."
Actor Heath Ledger's death at the age of 28 is another case in point. The Oscar-winning actor had not updated his will to include the daughter he had with actress Michelle Williams. A feud that played out in the media erupted between family members who accused Ledger's father of mismanagement. A court case was avoided when the father eventually announced that the daughter would inherit the entire estate. "It sure looked ugly there for a little while," Andy said, "but it never should have come to that.
"(Heath) did have a $20 million insurance policy for his daughter, but did he not update his will because he wanted his family to get the rest, or did he just forget to do it? We don't know, and that's the problem when you don’t update."
Estate planning can bring out the worst in family members as case after case illustrates. Fame just amplifies the acrimony. Fights are not always about money. They can also be about treasured personal possessions. One of Tony Curtis' daughters, for example, is suing her stepmother claiming she exerted undue influence on the actor who was more than 40 years her senior. Curtis left everything to her. She, in turn, auctioned off some of his personal property, including props from Some Like It Hotand his personal correspondence to some of his legendary Hollywood friends. The children, including Jamie Lee Curtis, got none of these personal effects.
"Whether you are a millionaire or of modest means, it can be heartwrenching not to have even one item from your parents," Danielle said. "We see in the celebrity world that some of the biggest fights are waged over the smaller items. This fight will be going on for awhile."
Fights can also be about burial wishes, as witness the bizarre case of Gary Coleman. He was divorced from his wife when he died, but they kept it secret and he authorized her to make medical decisions on his behalf. As executor of his estate, she took him off life support. She fought with his parents over her intentions to wear his ashes around her neck and spread the rest by the train tracks, as trains were his hobby. "His family did not want her to do that," Andy deadpanned.
Hollywood supplies the Mayorases with more than enough material for a monthly eletter. They recently wrote about the tragic case of Russell Armstrong, husband of Taylor, one of the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." He committed suicide in anticipation of the second season of the Bravo reality series, which he reportedly feared would portray him in a negative light. Taylor and her in-laws battled over his remains, with Taylor wanting him to be buried in Los Angeles, and his parents wanting his body returned to Texas for cremation.
Many estate planning estate mistakes can be avoided by working with someone who specializes in these matters, the Mayorases emphasize. "Many people use their divorce attorney or their bankruptcy attorney instead of someone who specializes in estate planning or probate litigation," Danielle said. "That can be a critical mistake because the documents should be customized and drafted for that family's situation and goals. Something that seems minor to the average person can be critical in changing an estate plan dramatically."
Frank Sinatra, Danielle said, did estate planning his way, and he did it right. With his attorney, he created the "no contest" clause, which said that if any of his beneficiaries challenged one of 13 types of legal actions, they would be disinherited. "Working with a good attorney can truly ensure that your legacy passes on to who you want, how you want," she said.