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What Can Jim Morrison's Simple Will Teach Us About Estate Planning?

  • March 6th, 2020

It’s a bit of ancient history, but Jim Morrison’s will highlights a misunderstanding in estate planning that is still common today: What happens to the balance of a bequest when the beneficiary dies?  

When The Doors lead singer died in 1971 at age 27, his will provided that his entire estate would pass to his girlfriend, Pamela Courson, provided she survived him by three months.  If Courson, his "primary beneficiary," didn’t survive him, then Morrison's property would instead pass to his brother and sister, his "secondary beneficiaries."  His girlfriend did survive Morrison by three months, but not much more than that.  And when she died less than three years after Morrison, Morrison’s property all passed to the girlfriend’s parents –- not to his parents or brother and sister. (This result lit a fire of litigation between Courson's and Morrison's parents that ended in an out-of-court settlement.)

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Maybe Morrison intended to bypass his family if Courson died, but probably not.  Most likely it was based on a misunderstanding or was simply accepted as one of the potential pitfalls of a “simple” will.  Some who do “simple” wills believe that when they name a primary and secondary beneficiary, the secondary beneficiary will receive the property when the primary beneficiary dies.  For example, in Morrison’s case his intention could have been that when the girlfriend died, his property would pass to his brother and sister.  But this would only have happened if the girlfriend herself created a will to state this (and not change it after Morrison’s death). 

When a beneficiary of a “simple” will survives the person creating the will, the property becomes the beneficiary’s, period.  He or she can leave the property to anyone, without regard to the other beneficiaries named in the will (or the wishes of the person who left them the property).  This not only has implications for rock stars, who likely care little for the humdrum details of estate planning, but for many everyday situations -– such as families with second marriages. 

If not careful, a couple who is on their second marriage and has children from a prior one could end up passing all of their property to the children of only one spouse, leaving the children of the other spouse out.  Or, in another example, if a person leaves property to a child who is on a second marriage, a “simple” will could result in all the property going to the second wife, leaving the person’s grandchildren out of the picture. 

There are many other examples of estate planning that could result in an unfortunate legacy.  The key is to be mindful of the “what-ifs” when creating a plan.  And a key part of this planning is not just asking the question of where the property goes if my primary beneficiary does not survive me, but also where it goes if he or she does. 

Trusts can often be used to prevent possibly unintended results like the final owners of Jim Morrison's estate.  To make sure your estate plan does not result in a similarly unintended outcome, contact your attorney. 

 

 


Last Modified: 03/06/2020
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