Good Will Hunt­ing: Estate Plan­ning Lessons from Hollywood

In Brief

After being asked how her hus­band died, the icon­ic Robin Williams char­ac­ter, Mrs Doubt­fire, replied, He was quite fond of the drink. It was the drink that killed him”. The response came, How awful. He was an alco­holic?” Mrs Doubt­fire quick­ly cor­rect­ed, No, he was hit by a Guin­ness truck. So it was quite lit­er­al­ly the drink that killed him”.

The wis­dom we can draw from Mrs Doubt­fire’s words (in addi­tion to look­ing before cross­ing the road) is that we need to be pre­pared for the unex­pect­ed. Estate plan­ning is not some­thing we nor­mal­ly think about as we go about our dai­ly lives. How­ev­er, fail­ing to have a pro­fes­sion­al estate plan in place could have seri­ous finan­cial and emo­tion­al con­se­quences for our families.

Eight months after his trag­ic death last year, a court bat­tle is being fought between Robin Williams’ wid­ow and his chil­dren over parts of his estate. It adds to a long and unfor­tu­nate tra­di­tion of celebri­ty estate plan­ning battles.

Below we look at four lessons we can learn from the stars when it comes to plan­ning our estate. 

You need a will

Chris Kyle was the most lethal sniper in Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­to­ry. His auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Amer­i­can Sniper, climbed to the top of the New York Times Best Sell­ers list and inspired an Oscar-win­ning film direct­ed by Clint East­wood and star­ring Bradley Coop­er. His death in 2013 sparked a bit­ter dis­pute over who was enti­tled to the mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar wind­fall from the Amer­i­can Sniper fran­chise. The rea­son for the dis­pute? Chris Kyle died with­out a will (also called dying intes­tate’). When he was alive, Kyle told friends that he regard­ed any earn­ings from his book as blood mon­ey”. Before his death, he alleged­ly donat­ed all of the pro­ceeds to the fam­i­lies of two fall­en Navy Seals and a char­i­ty for vet­er­ans. How­ev­er, after his death his wid­ow appar­ent­ly with­held any mon­ey from the bereaved fam­i­lies. No law­suits have been filed. As there was no will in place, the Navy Seals’ fam­i­lies’ chances of suc­cess would have been lim­it­ed, even though pub­lic state­ments made by Kyle would sug­gest he would have want­ed the fam­i­lies to con­tin­ue to be supported.

If Kyle had died with­out a will in NSW, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of his estate would have been gov­erned by the Suc­ces­sion Act 2006 (Suc­ces­sion Act) and the Pro­bate and Admin­is­tra­tion Act 1898. Under these laws, if an intes­tate dies leav­ing a spouse, then the entire estate goes to the spouse. Even if the deceased leaves chil­dren and a spouse, the spouse will still be enti­tled to the entire estate. The bot­tom line is that the laws sur­round­ing intes­ta­cy are com­pli­cat­ed. Legal bat­tles between rel­a­tives can be cost­ly and emo­tion­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing. The most sim­ple and cost-effec­tive way to pro­tect your loved ones and to ensure your wish­es are respect­ed is to leave a will. 

Make sure your will is up to date

Heath Ledger became the sec­ond actor to receive a posthu­mous Acad­e­my Award for his por­tray­al of The Jok­er in The Dark Knight. His sis­ter and par­ents accept­ed the award on his behalf. Those same fam­i­ly mem­bers were also the ben­e­fi­cia­ries under his will. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the will was writ­ten three years before he died, and after the birth of his first daugh­ter, Matil­da Rose. This led to fam­i­ly dishar­mo­ny that was played out in the pub­lic eye before Ledger’s father even­tu­al­ly promised the entire­ty of the estate to Matil­da Rose.

If that promise was nev­er made, under New South Wales law Matil­da Rose could still have applied for a Fam­i­ly Pro­vi­sion Order. Under the Suc­ces­sion Act, fam­i­ly mem­bers or peo­ple with a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship to the deceased can apply to the Supreme Court for a pro­vi­sion to be made out of an estate for a per­son­’s main­te­nance, edu­ca­tion and advance­ment in life. One of the cat­e­gories of eli­gi­ble peo­ple set out in sec­tion 58 of the Suc­ces­sion Act are chil­dren of the deceased. Matil­da Rose would have been suc­cess­ful if a Fam­i­ly Pro­vi­sion Order appli­ca­tion was made on her behalf. How­ev­er, such claims are cost­ly and time con­sum­ing. Heath Ledger’s death is a reminder that mak­ing a will is a pos­i­tive step but it should not be a final step. Your will must be updat­ed after impor­tant life events such as the birth of a child, a new mar­riage, divorce or start­ing a business.

Be cre­ative

Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man was regard­ed as one of the most adapt­able and cre­ative actors of his gen­er­a­tion. It is appro­pri­ate that his will reflects a sim­i­lar flex­i­bil­i­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty. Wills can some­times be as much state­ments of feel­ing as they are instru­ments of asset dis­tri­b­u­tion. Many peo­ple assume that a will mere­ly sets out how your pos­ses­sions will be dealt with after you die. On the con­trary, a good estate plan draft­ed by an expe­ri­enced solic­i­tor can be as flex­i­ble as your imag­i­na­tion. Sey­mour Hoff­man recog­nised this and used his will to pro­mote his val­ues and goals. For exam­ple, he appar­ent­ly expressed a wish that his son be raised in Man­hat­tan, Chica­go or San Fran­cis­co, or at least vis­it one of those cities twice a year. He includ­ed this in the hope that his son would be exposed to the cul­ture, arts and archi­tec­ture that those cities offer.

Cre­ative or unusu­al pro­vi­sions need to be pre­cise­ly draft­ed. A stan­dard will tem­plate or do it your­self’ kit rarely allows for per­son­alised or cre­ative pro­vi­sions. We have exten­sive expe­ri­ence draft­ing wills where the tes­ta­tor has not only allo­cat­ed assets to his or her ben­e­fi­cia­ries, but also includ­ed wish­es that reflect­ed his or her unique ideals.

Get a professional

War­ren E. Burg­er was the Chief Jus­tice of the Unit­ed States Supreme Court between 1969 and 1986. Under his lead­er­ship, the Court decid­ed Roe v Wade among sev­er­al oth­er land­mark judg­ments. Assumed­ly an advo­cate for con­cise legal draft­ing, Chief Jus­tice Burg­er decid­ed to write his own will using only 176 words. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, one of the most promi­nent fig­ures in Amer­i­can legal his­to­ry left out, among oth­er things, basic tax claus­es that would have saved his estate over $450,000 in estate taxes.

Writ­ing your own will is fraught with dan­ger. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, if you want to min­imise the tax bur­den on your estate, there are a range of mea­sures lawyers can take when draft­ing your will. For exam­ple, tes­ta­men­tary trusts in your will can assist with tax plan­ning and can help pro­tect your ben­e­fi­cia­ries from poten­tial cred­i­tors. There are also strict, tech­ni­cal require­ments with regard to wit­ness­ing and exe­cut­ing a will in order for it to be valid.

Robin Williams once said, There is still a lot to learn, and there is always great stuff out there. Even mis­takes can be won­der­ful”. With respect to estate plan­ning, we agree that there is still a lot to learn. We are con­tin­u­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing new and inno­v­a­tive ways to effec­tive­ly draft wills. How­ev­er, as Hol­ly­wood has often demon­strat­ed, mis­takes in your estate plan should be avoid­ed at all costs in order to pro­tect the peo­ple you care about.