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Don’t Stop Until You Get Enough—of Michael Jackson’s Estate

Aug 2, 2012 | | Estate Administration, Estate Planning, Probate, Trusts, Wills | No Comments

Another Lesson Learned from the Life and Death of Michael Jackson: Protect Your Estate from Greedy Heirs

By Stacey L. Worthy, Esq

Michael Jackson is back in the public spotlight, as much of his family resumes its attack on the validity of his will.[1]  MJ’s will left the entire estate to his mother and three children and left nothing to his siblings.[2] Randy Jackson, who is supported by Jermaine, Janet, and Rebbie, alleges that the five-page, signed document is “a fake” even though Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff accepted the will in November 2009.[3]

So what is a will contest? A will contest is a legal proceeding to challenge the validity of a will. Only a person who would have inherited under a prior will or through the laws of intestacy (i.e., when one dies without a valid will) can bring such an action.

Why now? The siblings argue that they were too overwhelmed with grief at the time that the original will contest was brought, and weren’t able to fathom the possibility of what they now claim is obvious to them: that the will is fake.[4] Siblings complain that the will is not authentic because MJ was in New York City on the date that the will was signed, but the will states that it was signed in Los Angeles.[5] Randy Jackson has a photo of MJ with Rev. Al Sharpton in New York that Randy claims was taken on the day that the will was signed in California.[6] Yet, this evidence is unlikely to hold up because three witnesses signed the will.[7]

It is not likely that the family members will be successful in contesting the will a second time.[8] As the California Second District Court of Appeals stated in October 2010, when it ruled against MJ’s father, the period to challenge the will has already passed.[9] The Court further noted that even if the will were invalidated, under California law, the estate would still pass to MJ’s children rather than the siblings.[10]

Below are some ways individuals can safeguard against others successfully contesting their will and potentially traumatizing loved ones. Please note that these general recommendations are not intended as legal advice. To properly address your own situation and legal needs, consult a licensed attorney.

  1. Start Early: make sure you plan your estate while you still have full mental capacity. You never know what the future may hold.
  2. Ensure Proper Execution: make sure that you have followed all of the required formalities that your state requires. Avoid using a generic template when creating a will in lieu of a customized will. Hiring a licensed attorney who will tailor the will to your individual needs and assets is worth the money because you will receive extra security.
    1. Communicate: let your loved ones know ahead of time what you plan to do with your estate and your reasons why. If you keep them informed, you can eliminate surprises. If you have bad news for family members, prepare them early. Don’t lie to avoid conflict. Doing so could be the basis for a will contest.
    2. Document: obtain adequate documentary evidence of your mental capacity. You can do this by asking your attorney to write an affidavit for witnesses to sign at the time the will is executed or obtain a letter from your doctor. This is especially important if you are in the hospital.
    3. Add a No-Contest Clause: A no-contest clause is a provision in the will that states that anyone entitled to a share of the estate under the terms of the will forfeit that entire benefit if he or she contests the will and the will is validated. Treatment of no-contest clauses differs from state to state, so this is another reason to consult a licensed attorney.
    4. Add a Simple Explanation: Draft a letter or add a simple clause to your will that clearly and objectively states your intention and rationale if you plan to deny an heir rights to take property under your will. You should also do this if you plan to leave more to one family member than another of the same relationship.
    5. Review and Update: Do not simply lock your will away in your file cabinet and forget about it. Review it at least once a year and contact your attorney if necessary to bring it up-to-date.
    6. Pre-Death Will Validation: this is also known as pre-mortem or ante-mortem probate. In few states, such as Alaska,[11] Arkansas,[12] North Dakota,[13] and Ohio,[14] you may initiate a court proceeding during your lifetime to validate the will. However, if you later amend your will, be sure to have it pre-probated again. Other states that follow the Uniform Probate Code allow for a self-proving, notarized affidavit, which creates a presumption that the will is valid.[15]
    7. Execute a New Will rather than Codicil: a codicil is an amendment to a will. It creates additions to an already existing will rather than creating a new will. This can lead to confusion if the terms of the codicil are inconsistent with the terms of the will. To be on the safe side, create a new will even if many of the provisions in the new will are the same.
    8. Create a Trust: a revocable living trust is a personal document that is meant to be kept private, whereas a will is a public document that anyone can view once it is probated. In addition to privacy, revocable living trusts cover all phases of your life, while you are alive and after you die, whereas a will only is effective once you have died. A living trust avoids probate, which means faster distribution to your heirs. Also, you can appoint someone who can automatically oversee your affairs under the trust if you become incapacitated. Moreover, costs and hassle are typically borne by the grantor during his lifetime rather than by the executor post-mortem.

    [1] Anthony McCartney, Michael Jackson’s Siblings Resume Attack on Will, Associated Press, Aug. 1, 2011.

    [2] Id.

    [3] Id.

    [4] Id.

    [5] Id.

    [6] Id.

    [7] Anthony McCartney, Michael Jackson’s Siblings Resume Attack on Will, Associated Press, Aug. 1, 2011..

    [8] Id.

    [9] Id.

    [10] Id. 

    [11] Alaska Stat. §§ 13.12.530-.590 (2010).

    [12] Ark. Code Ann §§ 28-40-201-203 (2004).

    [13] N.D. Cent. Code §§ 30.1-08.1-01-04 (2010).

    [14] Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §§ 2107.081-.085 (2010).

    [15] UPC § 2-504(a) (2009).

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