Getting Comfortable With Estate Planning Terminology
Two ElderLawAnswers member attorneys offer concise definitions of common estate planning terms.Read more
[This article was originally published on March 9, 2007. The links were updated on June 15, 2018.]
The unexpected death of Anna Nicole Smith created a media circus and court battles over her burial, but there are some valuable estate planning lessons to be learned from the controversy. Vickie Lynn Marshall, a.k.a. Anna Nicole Smith, the former Playboy Playmate and widow of billionaire J. Howard Marshall, left behind a five-month old daughter. Her adult son died last September. According to estate planning experts, her will contains some serious flaws that could tie her estate up in court for years to come and illustrate how important it is to keep a will up to date.
When Ms. Smith wrote her will, she had only one child. Her son died shortly after her daughter was born, but she never updated her will. Because her will leaves her entire estate in trust to her son, making no provision in the event he died before (predeceased) her, the trust will likely fail and her estate will probably pass to her daughter under the laws of intestacy (when someone dies without a will). Causing confusion and making it even more important that Ms. Smith kept her will up to date is a provision in the will specifically disinheriting future children.
Another important reason to keep a will updated is to name a guardian for minor children. Because Ms. Smith had not updated her will after the birth of her daughter, there was no guardian named for the baby. While it probably wouldn't have avoided the paternity fight over Ms. Smith's daughter, a will is the place to make your wishes regarding guardians clear. Without a guardianship provision, it is up to the judge to decide what is best for your children and the judge's decision may not accord with your wishes.
In addition, Ms. Smith may have been able to avoid the fight over her burial if she had made definite burial plans. Ms. Smith's mother wanted her buried in the family plot in Texas, while her longtime companion claimed she wanted to be buried next to her son in the Bahamas. If she had put her wishes in writing, her family and friends would have known exactly what she wanted.
The most important thing to remember is to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to draft your estate plan. Some of the problems with Ms. Smith's estate could have been avoided with better planning. To find a qualified attorney near you, click here.
To see Ms. Smith's will, click here.
For an article on the elder law attorney who represented Ms. Smith's daughter in the legal proceedings over Ms. Smith's burial, click here.
For an article on the various legal disputes surrounding Ms. Smith's estate, click here.