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Four celebrity deaths that highlight the importance of estate planning

Posted by Nigel Merchant | 10-Oct-2022 13:51:54

When coming to terms with the death of a loved one, the grieving period can be disrupted or worsened by issues with their Will, inheritance disputes, or other complications. These difficulties are often highlighted by high-profile probate and estate administration cases. This blog explores lessons that can be drawn from prominent celebrity deaths and the complexities that arose upon their passing.


Chadwick Boseman: The importance of creating a Will

In August 2020, beloved actor Chadwick Boseman sadly died of cancer at the age of 43. He was survived by his parents, his two brothers, and his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward. Boseman also left behind an estate estimated at $2.3 million in value. However, no Will was found with instructions as to who should inherit his assets.

With an estate of this size, not leaving behind a Will could have negative consequences. According to Californian intestacy rules, the estate should have been split 50/50 between Ledward and Boseman’s parents; his wife would be legally entitled to inherit everything according to the UK rules of intestacy. However, Ledward and Boseman were only married a few months before his death, and cases such as this often lead to claims from other family members that believe they should be entitled to more of the estate. This can delay the distribution process and cause additional stress to everyone involved. Luckily in this case, the inheritance was amicably and equally split between Boseman’s wife and parents, with accounts filed to document all residues collected since his death.

Whilst this situation was resolved without contention, it highlights the importance of creating a Will to ensure that the individual’s loved ones aren’t faced with difficult decisions and potential disputes at the time of a death. To learn more about the common causes of inheritance disputes, read our blog here.


Betty White: The benefits of estate planning

Actress Betty White died at age 99 in December 2021. White did not have any biological children, but she has three stepchildren from her marriage to Allen Ludden, who passed away in 1981. White did not remarry, nor did she have any siblings. Therefore, there were no legal heirs to her sizeable estate.

Betty White’s estate was reportedly worth a total of $75 million, with a $5 million property in California that was protected in a Trust. A Will was also left; as a result of her clear and thought-out estate planning, the full estate could be distributed as per her explicit wishes, which are unknown but thought to have included the charities she supported in her lifetime.

This case demonstrates the benefits of proper estate planning; by keeping your affairs and your Will in order, you can ensure that your estate will be dealt with smoothly and in accordance with your requests upon death. In the scenario where an individual has no next of kin and no plans for their estate in the UK, their assets may be passed to the crown, known as Bona Vacantia.


Click here to read our blog on 8 life events that should trigger a Will update.


Princess Diana: The advantage of including legal codicils

Although it has been 25 years since Princess Diana died tragically in 1997, questions about the distribution of her estate continue to be asked. Although Diana left a seemingly solid estate plan, with a valid Will and Letter of Wishes, a variation order was still obtained by her Executors; these were her mother and sister.

Diana’s original Will left sums of money to her butler and to be held in a Discretionary Trust for her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, and their future family members. Her personal belongings were to be left to her 17 godchildren, and the residuary estate (any remaining funds after Inheritance Tax, debts, and gifts are paid) was to be divided equally between William and Harry.

However, Diana’s Letter of Wishes instructed that 75% of her personal belongings were to be inherited by her sons, and the remaining 25% by her godchildren, differing from her Will. Unfortunately, a Letter of Wishes is not legally binding; instead, it provides the Executor(s) or Administrator(s) of an estate with instructions and/or guidance that the Will does not necessarily provide. They can choose whether to enact these wishes.

In the case of Princess Diana’s estate, the variation order caused Prince William and Prince Harry to receive their share of the residuary estate at the age of 30, rather than 25. Additionally, her godchildren were gifted one item each of Diana’s personal belongings, rather than 25% as stated in the Letter of Wishes.

While these may not seem like major changes to Diana’s wishes, the situation demonstrates the importance of leaving any direct instructions in a legally binding document, such as the Will or an official codicil. A codicil allows you to add to your existing Will without rewriting it and is a legal document, unlike a Letter of Wishes. Without this, the Personal Representative(s) (the umbrella term for the individual[s] administering the estate) may not distribute the estate according to the deceased’s wishes. Additionally, the process could be delayed.


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Amy Winehouse: Why you should use a professional Will Writer

Amy Winehouse’s untimely passing in 2011 lead to an intestacy case; although she had made a Will a couple of years prior to her death, it had never been witnessed or executed, and therefore was invalid. This meant that her estate was dealt with as an intestacy case. Her father was appointed as the Administrator of the estate.

As Winehouse and her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, had divorced in 2009 and she had no children, the entirety of her estate was split equally between her parents. The estate was valued at around £3 million at the time of her death; however, it is thought to have grown significantly over the years due to royalties from her music.

In 2019, eight years after Winehouse’s death, Fielder-Civil made a £1 million claim against the estate and demanded a monthly allowance from her assets. There is a six-month limit for bringing a claim forward from the time that the Grant of Probate is issued, which had long passed by this point, so the Court had to be asked for permission.

Fielder-Civil received a payment of £250,000 from Winehouse as part of their divorce settlement; if this sum was found to be a ‘clean break’ payment – one made with the expectation of no further payments being due – then his case would likely be unsuccessful. In addition, with the claim being made so long after the estate was distributed, it was likely that a large amount of the original inheritance would have been spent.

It is not known whether Winehouse’s ex-husband received any money as a result of his claim. Winehouse’s family publicly commented that they were strongly against paying any of her estate to Fielder-Civil, as they do not believe that was within her wishes. However, due to the lack of a valid Will, it is impossible to know for certain.

The case of this claim on Amy Winehouse’s estate again demonstrates the importance of ensuring a valid Will is made, even at a young age, especially when large life changes such as divorce are involved. Had Winehouse professionally executed her Will, her family could’ve avoided the strenuous situation of a claim on the estate years after her death. Additionally, by writing and executing the Will using a Will Writer, the document may have been professionally stored, reducing the time spent searching for the document.


The importance of estate planning

All of these celebrity cases demonstrate the importance of ensuring your affairs are in order in the event of your death. Having a valid Will, any codicils, and any other estate planning documents available can make a difficult time easier for your loved ones, allowing them to focus on the important things and distribute your estate in accordance with your wishes. You can then be reassured that your assets will only be inherited by those you wish to leave them to, and anyone you would like to be excluded will be.


Click here to download our free 'We take care of estate administration' guide.


Dealing with probate and estate administration can be a complex and time-consuming process for you or your loved ones to manage; a large amount of paperwork, including legal and tax work, may be necessary. Kings Court Trust is an expert probate and estate administration provider. We have specialist estate solutions available to help in all circumstances, and we can provide you with free, impartial advice on the best options.

If you have any questions about probate, estate administration, or how Kings Court Trust can help, call our Client Services Team on 0300 303 9000 or fill in the form below.




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Author: Nigel Merchant

Nigel Merchant is a Technical Manager at Kings Court Trust, where he has worked for over 15 years. Nigel has conducted over 2,000 family meetings and built up a huge amount of technical knowledge to share with partners and clients. Nigel has a calm and empathetic delivery which helps to achieve the business’ purpose of helping families to move on. Previously, Nigel worked at HSBC bank for over 25 years in the branch network, lastly as a Branch Manager and Personal Banking Manager, highlighting that customer service is a key driver for Nigel.

Topics: Estate Administration, Will Writing, Estate Planning, Will, Will Disputes, Celebrity