Prince passed on April 16, 2016; Bob Marley passed in 1981; Aretha Franklin passed Aug. 16, 2018, and as of this past April, John Singleton has passed on. These celebrities, and many others I haven’t named, all have something profound in common aside from their fame and race: none of them had efficient estate planning in place.
Passing on without a will or a current will in place turned their mourning periods into a frenzy of fighting families. The lack of a will is a social imbalance that affects many black Americans regardless of socioeconomic standing and/or level of fame, as the aforementioned celebrities’ estate issues reveal.
Financial Blunders of the Rich and Famous
The notion of celebrities dying without a will seems bizarre considering that after their deaths, their output continues to generate massive amounts of income. Think of Michael Jackson as an example. According to Reuters, from June 25, 2009—the day he passed—to June 25, 2010, his estate—including his music royalties, merchandising, licensing and more—brought in a staggering $1 billion in revenue.
However, Jackson had a will in place that allotted his robust financial returns to go to his children with his mother, Katherine Jackson, as the executor of his estate. There was never any risk of confusion or family members with ulterior motives attempting to gain access to an estate with a seemingly endless amount of capital.
On the other hand, Singleton, the Oscar-nominated director of such movies as Boyz N’ the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, and the recent FX series, Snowfall, is the latest example of a wealthy individual not having adequate estate planning in place. His alleged $35 million fortune is still being contested in court by his seven children, six of whom were not included in the will he created in 1993 when his eldest daughter, Justice Singleton, was born. According to his outdated will, Justice is the sole beneficiary of her father’s fortune. However, John Singleton’s mother, Sheila Ward, who is the executor of his estate, filed his will in probate court and listed his assets at only $3.8 million. Therefore, an additional $31 million of Singleton’s estate is unaccounted for.
Allegedly, Singleton set up a trust with other assets such as movie rights and other royalties, the value of which has yet to be determined, that doesn’t have to go through probate court. Therefore, inheritance issues involving those assets can be settled quickly, quietly, and more efficiently. Otherwise, the seven siblings are gearing up for a messy court battle that could be lengthy and also expensive. If Singleton’s will had been updated, preferably after each child was born, his offspring would have been financially protected and able to mourn their father in peace.
Available Information for Everyday People
What about everyday people who aren’t Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning celebrities? For us, living wills are just as important. End of life planning is something the black American community should incorporate into the conversations we have with our families.
According to Lori Anne Douglass, an estate planning and probate attorney based in New York, “Black Americans are 50% less likely to have a living will in place in comparison to other groups.”
“Estate planning,” she continues, “is much bigger than ‘You get this after I die’—it can be about setting our families up for the type of generational wealth that has long alluded our community. Having done this for 25 years and watched all the money that was lost in families because they didn’t have any planning, I am convinced that if the African American community got on the good foot and every black person who is alive over 60 did their estate planning, we’d be the richest minority group in the United States in one generation. We used to be the assets. Now we have assets.” (Douglass has more estate planning gems worthy of viewing, here).
Creating a will can be confusing for some. You may wonder; Do I need an attorney? Do I have to have a will notarized? What if I want to change my will? These are all valid questions. You also don’t need to be rich to have a will in place. Each state has its own requirements for how a will can be crafted and legitimized. But what most states have in common is that you can write a simple will, have it notarized and/or signed by two witnesses. This allows you to itemize exactly your wishes during your final days and after passing on. It also allows flexibility in updating estate plans when the need arises. Legalzoom.com also gives simple step-by-step instructions on what one can do to prepare a will without an attorney.
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