The Problem of Dying Without a Will

NFL quarterback Steve “Air” McNair was rich and famous. 

About a year after retiring from football in 2008, the former Tennessee Titan star died of sudden onset acute lead poisoning (a polite way of saying “his girlfriend shot him”). 

That’s when the world found out about McNair’s intestacy (a fancy way of saying “he died without a will”). 

Though he had an estate worth some $19 million, McNair’s widow and four children were forced to endure a long, frustrating probate process, which culminated in a big chunk of that fortune being swallowed up by estate taxes.

McNair’s estate troubles are sad for at least two reasons: 1. It didn’t have to be that way. 2. These kinds of stories are legion. 

Artist Pablo Picasso never got around to estate planning. When he died in 1973, it took six years and roughly $30 million in legal fees to get everything sorted out.

When seventies crooner John Denver perished in a plane crash in 1997—you guessed it—he had no will. What a mess! Probate courts took six years to settle his estate, thanks to claims by his ex-wife and the two children they’d adopted together and counterclaims by his widow and child.

Sadly, lots of other singers were too busy making music to bother with estate planning. Prince, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix also died intestate, sparking bitter, years-long feuds over their riches.

Remember child actor Gary Coleman? He divorced his wife (on TV, of course), but failed to revise his will or his medical power of attorney. When he suffered a nasty fall that put him in a coma, his ex-wife exercised her right to pull the plug. Following his death, multiple wills appeared. The battle raged in probate court for quite some time.

It isn’t just flaky entertainers. Our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln died without a will—and he was an attorney! Talk about a classic case of “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.”

I could cite “estate planning failures” all day long, but I’ll give just one more. The Wrigley family had owned the Chicago Cubs since 1921, but when Bill Wrigley died in 1981, his heirs had to sell the team to pay the taxes owed. 

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not rich or famous. I don’t have a secret (homicidal!) mistress, a string of ex-spouses, a business empire, or sports franchise that would require my heirs to pay whopping estate taxes.”

Okay, but I’ll bet you have wishes. 

You have in mind certain things that you want to occur (and not occur) after you are gone. 

So, here’s my challenge: Write these things down in as much detail as you can. 

Then take these notes with you to a meeting with an attorney, CPA, or financial planner. You will likely need the services of all three before you’re done, but you’ll certainly need an attorney to draft the documents that can ensure your wishes are carried out.

You may not be rich or famous (yet), but you sure don’t want to be remembered by those you love for something you failed to do…estate planning.

Don’t put it off. Plan your estate.

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