Whitney Houston’s Will has been big news since it was recently filed with the probate court in Fulton County, Georgia. Perhaps the biggest news is that Ms. Houston’s estate plan consists of a Will, signed in 1993 and modified by a single codicil, and nothing more. Not even a living trust.
The Will names Ms. Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, as sole beneficiary, with a provision for her estate to be distributed via a testamentary trust.
The fact that Whitney Houston left behind such an underwhelming estate plan creates some great talking points for you and your clients. Here are three:
Living Trusts Have Advantages: We’re all well acquainted with the benefits of living trusts, but our clients aren’t so familiar with them.
Here’s a thought: If Ms. Houston had opted for a living trust rather than a will, her estate plan would not be available for public viewing via Inside Edition or other curiosity-seekers. Most of your clients won’t have to worry about their Wills appearing on all the gossip websites, but they might be concerned about extended family members, colleagues, or acquaintances snooping through their private business.
Depending on the probate process in your state, the fees and delays associated with probating a Will may also be a concern. In addition, living trusts can serve as a valuable tool for balancing the varying needs and interests of blended families. You should counsel your clients to take all of these factors into account when thinking about an estate plan.
It Pays to Understand the Law: Whitney Houston made her Will in 1993, when she was married to Bobby Brown and was a resident of New Jersey. Had she and Brown still been married at the time of her death, he would have had the right to an elective share of her estate, regardless of the terms of her Will. That is, unless he’d signed a waiver of his right to an elective share. Who knows whether Whitney Houston understood that New Jersey law trumped the terms of her Will? Your job is to ensure your clients make educated choices about their own estates.
Update, Update, Update: Regardless of the estate planning method your clients ultimately use, it’s imperative that they update their estate plans. A lot transpired in the 19 years between the making of Whitney Houston’s Will and her death. She signed a codicil in 2000 naming her mother as executor, but she didn’t make any changes to her plan after her 2007 divorce.
Again, this is a great discussion point for your clients. Your clients may or may not know that a divorce creates the need for a new Will or trust. But they’re likely unaware that a divorce decree doesn’t automatically sever all ties – think beneficiary designations, for example. It’s your role to counsel and educate them – not only about updating after a divorce, but after other life changes, too.
The Whitney Houston estate – or any other celebrity estate – can present a great jumping-off point for a discussion about your clients’ needs. It can be a great way for you to connect with your client on a personal level, while giving a teaching moment, as well.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128