Estate Planning and Celebrity Passings

Estate planning is something that is rarely openly discussed in our society, however when a celebrity passes away suddenly, often their estate is in the news, especially if it is complicated. The notoriety of celebrity gives a sheen of interest to a legal matter that is often too dry and confusing for most people to follow.

Moving beyond mere gossip, however, celebrity estates can give us the opportunity to discuss issues that can effect anyone’s estate planning.


For example, what should a person do if they are separated (but not divorced) from their spouse? Two tragic deaths recently occurred that were in this circumstance—both celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade were married to their spouses but separated when they passed away. This creates a complicated legal minefield, as spouses continue to have extensive rights over marital assets and a person’s estate even when they are separated.

In North Carolina, for example, the Marital Elective Share is a portion of estate that can be legally claimed by the surviving spouse, regardless if the deceased person tried to leave them a smaller amount in their will. The elective share is not effected by separation.


Singing legend Aretha Franklin recently passed away in Michigan without a will, which is known as dying “intestate.” Depending on location, an intestate probate can be a logistical nightmare. Luckily, the laws in Michigan are comparatively straightforward, and most likely her estate will be evenly divided between her children. A more complicated situation can be seen with singer Prince, who passed away intestate in 2016 without children. The estate is still in probate, costing millions of dollars in legal fees as the courts attempt to untangle the assets and beneficiaries.


With Ms. Franklin’s estate, however, her attorney Don Wilson has been open about wishing she had established a living trust. He told USA Today in an interview, “It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate and kept things private.” The relative ease of managing a trust compared to a will, plus keeping assets out of public record, can be hugely beneficial to significant estates.

An important step after setting up a trust, of course, is funding it. That means that assets (such as property and accounts) should be retitled into the name of the trust. Actress Carrie Fisher, who passed away in 2016, had set up a trust and partially funded it, but did not move over significant assets prior to her death. This created a legal hassle for the trustee and her attorneys.


Talking to your family about estate planning can be difficult, and it may be helpful to use high-profile examples like those above to start the discussion. There are steps we can take now to ease the burden to our loved ones in the future.

Colin Austin