Celebrities, they’re just like us! 

When they pass away, their estates go through a legal process to make sure their wishes are honoured. From guardianship of children to distributing their belongings, it all comes down to their wills.

Most of us don’t have multi-million dollar estates. But there are still important lessons we can take away when planning our own estates. 

Keep reading as we break down a few of the most famous celebrity wills and estates.

Aretha Franklin

When she passed away in 2018, Aretha Franklin’s family believed she didn’t have a will. Her estate would have been distributed under laws of intestacy in Michigan. 

But, several handwritten documents were later found in her home that could be considered holographic wills. One of these documents was even supposedly found under her couch cushions. But because there were several amendments and multiple documents, this holographic will was heavily contested by her family. 

A 4th draft of a will appeared three years later in 2021. This time, a document that was prepared by a law firm but it wasn’t signed by the Queen of Soul.

As of 2022, the matter of her estate has yet to be settled. 

What can we learn?

Holographic wills or wills written by hand, are legal in Canada. It’s a good alternative if you’re in a bind or unable to complete a formal will. 

It doesn’t really matter how you make your will. The most important thing is communication. 

It’s important that you tell your executor and loved ones where they can find the latest version of your will. Or, like in Aretha’s case, it can make it difficult to decipher what your final wishes truly were.

Read more: Here are some tips for talking about wills and death with your loved ones.

Prince

Singer-songwriter, Prince, passed away in 2016 at the age of 57. He is among the list of celebrities who passed away without a will.

He also had no spouse or children, meaning the court named his six half-siblings legal heirs. A prolonged and complex legal battle followed over the distribution of his $156.4 million estate. The dispute took over six years to resolve.

Ultimately, in 2022 the estate was split between two holding companies consisting of the interests of his half-siblings. 

What can we learn?

While the issue regarding Prince’s estate has been resolved, we’ll never know what he actually would have wanted. Unfortunately, dying without a will is incredibly common – among celebrities and everyday folks.

Most of us don’t have hundreds of millions in our estate. But dying intestate can be expensive and create enormous amounts of stress for everyone involved. It also leaves the fate of your estate in the hands of the legal system.

Robin Williams

At the time of his death, Robin Williams had a valid will that he had signed in 2011. The will stated that his property would be divided among his three children. The will also specified his wishes for his wife, Susan Schneider, to be able to continue living in their home in Tiburon, California.

This seemed pretty straightforward – so what was the issue?

His children wanted to claim the personal assets inside the home. The case was eventually settled out of court, so there are few details known about the final arrangements. But we do know that Schneider ultimately received some personal items from the estate.

What can we learn?

Robin William’s wishes were clear. He had made a plan for who he’d like his home to go to and the distribution of his assets. The missing part? Detailing who was entitled to the personal possessions in the home.

It’s not best practice to list out every asset you own in your will. It’s impractical to update your will every time you buy anything big or small. Plus, most wills become public during the probate process so anything you list in your will can be read by anyone.

But if there are specific items that you’d like to gift to someone after you pass away, you should include them in your will. Even items that don’t hold monetary value, like sentimental items, can be the cause of disputes after you pass away.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana’s death was one of the most publicized in history. After she passed away in 1997, her will was made public.

In her will, she left the majority of her estate to her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. The will also stated that she wanted her mother and sister to act as executors and trustees for her sons until they reached 30 years of age. She left gifts to various friends, staff, and charities. 

Some other wishes were written in a letter separate from her will. Many of these wishes weren’t honoured since they weren’t officially included as part of the last will and testament.

What can we learn?

Even if you’re a royal, the estate planning and inheritance process is a legal one. Making an informal plan, like writing a letter or speaking with your loved ones is a great start. 

But the best way to make sure your wishes are honoured is by formalizing them in a will. 

Write your will with confidence: Willful’s documents have been created in partnership with lawyers in each province. Start your will for free today.

Anna Nicole Smith

Anna Nicole Smith’s will was created in 2001, six years before she passed in 2007. In her will, she left the majority of her estate to her son, Daniel. 

In that time, she also gave birth to a daughter, Dannielynn, in 2006. Because her will didn’t account for any unborn children, Dannielynn was effectively excluded from the will. Since Dannielynn was born after the will was created, there was also no formal plan for her guardianship. 

Smith’s will was contested by multiple parties, including her mother, her former partner and her late husband's estate. 

Even before her death, Anna Nicole Smith was familiar with the legal processes of distributing and contesting an estate. She was famously left out of her late husband, J. Howard Marshall’s will and contested that she was entitled to a portion of his estate. This legal battle took almost 20 years and even made it as far as the Supreme Court.

What can we learn?

Your will isn’t a one-and-done document, it should be updated as your life changes. In Anna Nicole’s case, much of the confusion around her estate could have been minimized if she had updated her will when her daughter was born.

Some situations where you should consider updating your will include:

  • Birth of a child
  • Purchase of a large asset, like a home or vehicle
  • Changes in marital status

This way, you can feel confident that your will reflects your most up-to-date wishes. It can also reduce the impact on your loved ones.

The biggest learning? Make a will

Celebrity estates make for interesting news, but they can also be a source of legal disputes and controversies. It’s why you’ll often see celeb wills in the news.

And while your will most likely won’t be newsworthy, it’s still important to make one. Not only can you make a plan for your belongings, but you can make key decisions like choosing a guardian for minor children. 

Your will is what makes your end-of-life wishes legal. Without a will, you could be leaving your loved ones with the stress and frustration when wrapping up your intestate estate.

Whether you choose to make your will online with Willful, visit a lawyer, or write a holographic will – make sure you create your will. It’s the only way to make sure that you and your family’s future is in your own hands.

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