What do Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Amy Winehouse all have in common? They were all mega-successful performers who left massive estates – but no will.
Uh-oh. Talk about fighting over money.
Now, for Winehouse and other stars who tragically died young, like Jimi Hendrix and Heath Ledger, not having a will is easier to understand. But Prince was middle-aged, and Aretha’s health, at age 76, had been declining for some time.
Why didn’t these celebs have wills? For that matter, why don’t more Americans have wills?
According to a recent study from Caring.com, up to 60% of folks in the US don’t have a will. So, only four out of ten people in our country have a plan for their estate.
I put much of the blame for this situation on the people behind estate planning.
1. The Experts Don’t Have the Right Conversations
Traditionally, estate plans deal with what happens to a person’s property after death. When you meet with a lawyer/tax professional/financial expert, the conversation typically turns into a review of your money and property. That can be off-putting to some folks who may feel reduced to a pile of cash waiting to be divvied up.
This feeling can sometimes be addressed by including an Ethical Will or legacy letter in one’s estate planning package. This document is not legally binding, but it is a way for a person to share their values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with their family, friends, and community. In this way, and Ethical Will is a powerful testament to your life.
Another way to express what you’ve learned over your lifetime is to have a family conversation. This is similar to what an Ethical Will accomplishes, but instead of writing things down, you sit down and say them to the ones you love. This way, a dialogue is created as part of your estate planning process, and you get to say what your values are to the people you love.
And on this note…
2. We Need to Focus Estate Planning on Life, Not Death
No one likes to think of the day when he will leave this life – it’s unpleasant. As a result, we tend to put off making plans for what we want to happen when we’re gone.
What if the professionals changed the conversation? Instead of saying, “How do you want to distribute your assets upon your death?”, how about if they asked, “How can we best honor your life and values in your estate plan?” It’s in the details. Look, no one is coming in for a two-hour estate planning meeting and then skipping off to brunch and mimosas. So, maybe we need a little more hand holding and compassion. In my opinion, people may feel differently – and embrace these essential conversations – if they knew the professionals with whom they are working were focused more on their lives, and less on their deaths.
3. We Need to View Estate Planning with Less Finality.
While many professionals stress the gravity of making a will (and it is an important endeavor), they don’t always explain that estate planning is a process. Just as rules are made to be broken, wills are drafted for codicils to be executed.
Everyone wants to have their affairs put in final order so that they don’t have to think about it anymore. It doesn’t help that most professionals hold a very transactional view of the world – meaning when deals are done, documents are signed, and projects are completed, we all go home, and that’s it.
But that’s not it. An estate plan is a living thing – over the years your desires, goals, and values may shift a little, while your estate may change a lot. There needs to be room in the conversation for folks to say, “For now, this is what I want,” and for there to be the understanding that things may not be the same in twenty, ten, or five years.
Eventually, Winehouse’s parents inherited her millions, while Prince’s estate is still open and, according to some commentators, “a mess.” What will happen to the Queen of Soul’s fortune remains to be seen. Suffice it to say, though, sorting out who gets what likely won’t be a quick and easy process. And, in the end, who knows if the resolution of the legacies is what the artists would have wanted?
I know it’s unpleasant. I know it’s a drag. But I am a firm believer in the power of a good, solid estate plan that you revisit every now and again to make sure it still fits you. A good plan that shows your ideals and values can be a celebration of your life, rather than a mourning of it. And if you don’t know where to start, just execute a simple will. It can make all the difference in you and your family’s peace of mind.