Famous People Who Didn’t Plan

Famous People Who Didn’t Plan Properly

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of taking the time to plan your estate. Nevertheless, many haven’t done so, for many different reasons. You might think that the rich and famous would be way ahead of the curve when it comes to planning their estates properly, considering the resources and lawyers presumably available to them. Yet there are plenty of celebrities and people of note who died with inadequate (or nonexistent) estate plans.

Most recently

We lost some greats in 2018, including chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. But it appears Franklin died without a will or estate plan in place. Her four sons filed documents in probate court in Oakland County, Michigan, listing themselves as interested parties, and her niece asked the court to appoint her as personal representative of the estate.

All of this is now available to the public because of probate. Her estate will be distributed according to the laws of Michigan, her state of residence. In addition, creditors will have a chance to make claims against her estate and may get money before any of her heirs. It looks like she owned property in more than one state, so probate will likely have to be opened in each state where she owned property (ancillary probate). The settling of her estate could drag on for years at a potentially high financial and emotional cost.

A few years ago

Prince Rogers Nelson, who was better known as Prince, died in 2016. He was 57 years old and still making incredible music and entertaining millions around the world. The first filing in the Probate Court for Carver County, Minnesota, was by a woman claiming to be the sister of Prince, asking the court to appoint a special administrator because there was no will or other testamentary documents. As of November 2018, there have been hundreds of court filings from prospective heirs, creditors, and other “interested parties.” There will be no privacy in the administration of Prince’s estate, as the entire ongoing proceeding is open and available to anyone for scrutiny.

A long time ago

Here are some other notable personalities who died many years ago without planning their estates.

Pablo Picasso died in 1973 at 91, leaving no apparent will or other testamentary instructions. He left behind nearly 45,000 works of art, rights and licensing deals, real estate, and other assets. The division of his estate assets took six years and included seven heirs. The settlement cost an estimated $30 million in legal fees and other related costs.

Howard Hughes’ estate made headlines for several years following his death in 1976. Along the way, several bogus wills were offered, and people claiming to be wives came forward, as did countless self-proclaimed relatives. Three states — Nevada, California, and Texas — claimed to be responsible for the distribution of his estate. Ultimately, by 1983, his estimated $2.5 billion estate was split among 22 “relatives” and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest presidents, was a lawyer. Yet when he met his untimely death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth in 1865, he died intestate — without a will or other testamentary documents. After his death, Lincoln’s son, Robert, asked Supreme Court Justice David Davis to assist in handling his father’s financial affairs. Davis later was appointed as the administrator of Lincoln’s estate. It took more than two years to settle his estate, which was divided between his surviving widow and two sons.

Go ahead and plan

These are all cautionary tales. No matter your age or health, take some time to document your wishes for your assets, so the state or judges don’t have to decide what you might have wanted. And once it’s done, it will be a weight off your shoulders.

Blue Spark Capital Advisors

We're a fee-only Registered Investment Advisory and financial planning firm based in New York City and the Berkshires.

We specialize in working with women after divorce, death of a spouse, or other life transitions such as retirement or job change. We provide financial planning and investment management services.

We believe in a holistic approach. Movement in each piece of your financial plan impacts the others, so we consider your entire picture.


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"Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."
– Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)