A will is a unique legal document that has absolutely no effect until you’re dead. And so to carry out the terms of your will it has to be presented to the court and the court supervises the distribution of your estate under the terms of your will.
Now, it’s a court process. That means it’s open to the public. Anybody has access to the court records. And so you can have people looking at your court records that you would never have invited to in the first place. It could be just a nosy neighbor or a newspaper reporter, which is what happened to Natalie Wood’s estate. The Wall Street Journal sent a reporter after her death to look at her probate records. Now they found that she had an estate worth about six million dollars, and that included 29 fur coats and various other things. Her estate became public because there was an article printed in the Wall Street Journal. So her estate was more public than most of ours will be, but that’s what happens in the probate of an estate. It is public record.
Now, you will be interested to know that in the newspaper the last several years there have been ads promoting looking at probate records as a way of finding real estate that might be up for sale at a lesser cost. So people can buy it at “fire sale” type rates. That’s all public record and now it’s being promoted as a way for other people to make money off your estate when you’re looking to sell your parents’ goods so you can just have a cash inheritance. Probate records are not private.
We’re going to take a glimpse at some of the estates of some of these famous people, just so you can get an idea. It’s kind of fun to see what happened.
When she died in 1962, she was actually deeply in debt, but over the next 18 years her estate gained some royalties and other payments, and so it accumulated about a million and a half more dollars. The estate was settled and, at the end, the net estate – the amount that was finally able to be distributed to her heirs — amounted to about $370,000. So out of that one and half million dollars that her estate accumulated, most of it was eaten up in taxes, court costs and lawyers’ fees.
Robert F. Kennedy
The Kennedy Family is full of tragedies. Of course, we know about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but do you remember his younger brother, Robert Kennedy, was also assassinated while he was running for president? Robert F. Kennedy was a lawyer and he had been the U.S. Attorney General. So, you’d think he would know about planning his estate. But when we look at the settlement of his estate it appears he had a gross estate of about 1.6 million dollars — a pretty good sum in those days. And that the costs in settling his estate amounted to just over a million dollars. So the total shrinkage in his estate was 63%. Now this is from someone who should have known about planning for his estate. He was a senator, a U.S. attorney, a learned gentleman with a wealthy background, and yet the shrinkage of his estate was huge.
It’s always fun to talk about the rock star, Elvis Presley. While he was alive, he accumulated an estate over 10 million dollars in value. Of course, he didn’t expect to die when he did. But he left an estate full of debts and costs of settlement, and didn’t really plan for passing his estate onto his heirs. Now they’ve made a lot of his estate, but I think if Elvis were to come back now, he would say “Don’t be cruel.” They took a lot of his money in settling his estate. The total costs of his estate were over 7 million dollars. Imagine if he had planned a little bit and left more to his family what Graceland would amount to now, and his other assets. They’re huge, as it is, but they were cut way down at his death. The shrinkage was about 73%.
It is wise to prepare an Estate Plan including a Trust in order to keep your estate private and allowing it to transfer without fees to your heirs. Let Legal Awareness for Seniors help set up the right estate plan for you.