Michael Jackson: King of Pop (and Estate Planning?)

Are you tired yet of hearing about the Michael Jackson saga? One thing for sure, the gossip media should have plenty to talk about for quite a while. It turns out Michael did have a Last Will & Testament after all. (Thanks to those who sent me links to good articles on his estate issues.) Despite the circus atmosphere, Michael’s estate situation gives us some reminders about important planning issues:

1. Wills are public. Usually, there are many issues that are much more important to your family than keeping your estate matters secret. But at the same time, do you really want people to see your private info? And with increasing online access to court records, it will be easier and easier for your neighbor or nosy relative to look at your Will in court records without leaving home.

2. Living Trusts are private. A living trust is a good way to keep your info private at your death. And that’s exactly what Michael did. Look at his Will. It is what we call a “pour over will”, meaning his will doesn’t have much in it except instructions to dump assets at his death into what they are calling his “Family Trust” (which is private and will stay private). So all the gory details about who gets what and when they get it are only in that private document, incorporated by reference into his Will. And it seems to me that Michael’s Will actually included more info than necessary. For instance, I usually would not put something in the Will about disinheriting anyone (as he did with is ex-wife). That kind of info can go in your trust to keep it all private.

3. Asset titling is key. We haven’t seen how this part plays out yet. Even though Michael had a living trust, if he didn’t properly title his assets in that trust before his death, then the probate court will have to do it using his will. Without assets organized properly, he will lose part of the benefits of the living trust.

4. Feeding frenzy? Michael’s death is a media frenzy, but also a money frenzy too. Friends, relatives, business associates, will all be scrambling to take financial advantage. Those who are controlling his assets will be approached by all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas and schemes, all designed to get some money from the estate. Marlon Brando’s estate attorney said people came “out of the woodwork making all sorts of claims” after Brando died. At your death, who will be in charge of your estate and who will be at risk for being taken advantage of?

5. Personal items are important. There is a court dispute over 2,000 personal items. Michael’s mom has control of them, but the real executors want them back. The judge told them to try to work it out. I have seen a lot of hurt feelings and disputes over personal items, sometimes of small dollar value. But sometimes the items of small dollar value have huge sentimental and emotional value. What have you done to make sure your personal items don’t cause a dispute later? What have you done to preserve the stories behind items of emotional value?

6. We never know when. We look at Michael and figure he was living a life on the edge that could lead to an early death. But the fact is that none of us know when our time is up. One thing about estate planning – you need to do it when you don’t need it, because when you need it, it’s too late to do it.

Despite some feeling like the topic has been covered way too well, there is even more we can learn from this situation, including how to choose guardians for your children. Check out Part II of this post here.