Aretha Franklin messily scrawled her will on a discarded piece of paper later found under a couch cushion. When it came time to make decisions about Tom Petty's trust, his wife and daughters found themselves at odds—the daughters filed a lawsuit and wouldn't back down.
Prior to his death, Heath Ledger hadn't updated his will to include his infant daughter. And baseball legend Ted Williams had a will that expressed his wish to be cremated. A handwritten note dated after the will requested that his body be permanently frozen in a cryonics chamber. A family fight ensued.
"Celebrities are people, too," said Michael Sears, trust officer at BOK Financial®. "There are important lessons to be learned from these examples about estate planning, that apply to everyone—not just the rich and famous."
Technically, estate planning is a process to help you manage and preserve your assets while you're alive, and to conserve and control their distribution after your death according to your goals and objectives.
When it comes to estate planning, people tend to think they're too young or not wealthy enough to need a will. That's just not true, Sears said.
"No one likes to think about it," he said. "None of us knows when we'll need a will, but our loved ones will be happy we had the forethought."
Sears offers these seven tips for getting started:
- Do something. Covering the basics is better than doing nothing at all.
- Don't do it yourself. It may be better than nothing, but you get what you pay for. Pay for counseling, not documents.
- Make sure it is clear. If it's illegible or undecipherable it's the same as not having a will at all. Don't leave room for speculation.
- Keep it up to date. A will is a living document that should be reviewed and updated periodically.
- Consider a lifetime trust. This option can be flexible and provide the beneficiary some level of control.
- Choose a trustee. The choice of a trustee is critical even in small estates. The trustee will be tasked with addressing tax, legal and investment issues with objectivity. Consider a professional trustee to ease the burden on family members.
- If you use a trust, make sure it is funded.
Sears said it's important to update estate planning documents every five years, or sooner in the case of a major life event such as the birth of a child, death of a loved one, divorce or change in tax laws.
"Larry King's will directs distribution among his five children," said Sears. "But two of them preceded him in death. No provisions were included to address that possibility, and the will hadn't been updated after that significant change."
Sears said he knows the subject isn't one most people are comfortable discussing, "but it's a chance to take an active role in your legacy."
If you're not sure where to start a conversation about estate planning, reach out to a trust officer, wealth advisor or private banker.
Information in this article should not be construed as legal or tax advice and is offered for general informational purposes only. Links to other sources of information are provided only for the convenience of the reader and should not be considered a recommendation or endorsement.