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California Estate Planning: Champagne Wishes & Caviar Dreams

California estate planning requires a living trust to avoid probate and publicity

Airing Dirty Laundry

Admit it. You’ve dreamt about being a celebrity. The glitz. Glam. Name in lights. Red-carpet affairs… While we may be envious of living the life of Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, many of the rich and famous (and us lay folks too) have learned the hard way that aside from high costs and delayed distribution, California estate planning documents “go public” if a living trust is not in place on death. “Going public” is not like IPO stock. There’s nothing to gain here. Only the potential that a relative or nosy acquaintance will review your estate affairs without your consent. The California estate planning rules provide that your docs will remain private as long as you’re alive. Problem. Unless you’ve conspired with Ted Williams and figured out how to cryogenically freeze yourself for future preservation, you’re going to die some day.

Creating a living trust as part of your comprehensive California estate planning package avoids probate, which in turn keeps your estate affairs private. A living trust never needs to be filed with court, either before or after your death. The trustee simply follows the terms of the trust. There is no need for the trustee to get permission or approval from the probate court. If you only create a will (and not a living trust), the California estate planning rules require that whoever has possession of your will must file it with the local probate court when you die. Notify the press! Your estate docs are now public for all to see. This is true even if your case doesn’t ultimately require probate proceedings. This is why stories of celebrities misguided California estate planning documents often hit the newsstands. Two of the most infamous stories of celebrity estate feuds concern the estates of Dennis Hopper and Etta James.

Famous Mishaps in California Estate Planning

California estate planning famous mishap - Dennis Hopper

“Rebel Without a Cause” Causing Estate Problems

Known for his bold movie characters, Dennis Hopper was also a “Rebel Without a Cause” when it came to love. But, instead of blockbuster success, Hopper ended up with five ex-wives, the last of whom was Victoria Duffy. Hopper died in 2008 while ensnared in a bitter divorce with Duffy. Since that time, Duffy and Hopper’s children and named trustees have waged battle. Some of the disputed issues. A contested prenuptial agreement. Defamation. Larceny. Conversion. Talk about strained family ties. The feud continues to this day with no end in sight. While the prenuptial agreement was a smart idea, the lack of communication between Duffy and Hopper’s children (all from previous wives) has turned a nasty divorce into an even nastier estate battle.

Feud Solved “At Last”

A famous case in California estate planning lore centers on the feud that erupted between the children of late iconic singer Etta James and her husband, Artis Mills. The case raged on for years, but was “At Last” settled just before James’ death in early 2012. James had created an advance health care directive and financial durable power of attorney naming her son as agent. Mills filed suit when James became ill to gain access to her financial accounts to pay for her care. Mills contended James lacked capacity when she originally named her son as agent. The court ultimately named Mills as guardian and awarded a lump sum for the care of James. The case aired James’ dirty laundry, irreparably destroyed familial relationships and cost all parties thousands of dollars. The Etta James estate feud, as well as many other infamous cases have been featured on the new Investigation Discovery T.V. show “The Will: Family Secrets Revealed.

Moral to these stories. Including a living trust as part of your California estate planning package avoids probate, maintains privacy and allows your estate to be distributed according to your wishes.

About Sean Hanley

Practicing law since 2007, Sean specializes in the ever-changing laws related to real estate, business and estate planning. Embracing technology with a focus on personalized service, he understands the challenges of living and thriving in Silicon Valley. Tapping into his education in economics and business administration, Sean also serves on the non-profit Willow Glen Business Association.

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