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Sunday, February 17, 2019

What happens if I die without an estate plan?

Most people have heard that when music legend, Prince, passed away a couple years ago, he died without a will. Perhaps he didn’t care what happened to his property after he died or, like many without estate plans, maybe he just assumed his property would pass easily to the people he wanted to have it. In reality, Prince’s estate is the proverbial poster child for how much can go wrong when you die without an estate plan.


A last will and testament contains your directions regarding who you want your assets to go to when you’re gone—these people or organizations are known as beneficiaries. It also names the executor of the will-- which is the person in charge of gathering your assets, paying your creditors, distributing your property to beneficiaries in the matter you directed and seeing that your wishes are carried out. A will also allows you to appoint legal guardians to raise your children if you die before they reach adulthood.


When you die without a will, all of your probate property--property that doesn’t pass to someone upon your death automatically through a trust or by operation of law (like joint bank accounts, IRAs with beneficiary designations, etc.)—will be distributed in accordance with the intestacy statute of your state. 


State laws differ, but generally your property will go to or be divided among your surviving spouse (if any), children (if any), and sometimes parents (if any). If there are no living relatives in those categories, the court will look for more distant relatives like siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, etc. until they find the next living blood relative in line. Which means your property may not only not go to who you want to have it, but it may go to someone who you don’t want to have it-- and in some cases it may go to someone you don’t even know.


Not having a will sets an estate up for anything from minor delays and inconvenience and unnecessary costs to very serious problems from the beginning. First, someone must petition the court to be appointed as the administrator of the estate – – which is the equivalent of an executor. As one might imagine, a celebrity’s multi-million-dollar estate with no will can bring out the worst in people-- including scammers and frauds claiming to be relatives.


In addition to people seeking a piece of the Prince pie, his estate has had to deal with shady people allegedly trying to make money off the illegal use of Prince’s music, his image, and more. It is the duty of the administrator of an estate to safeguard the estate assets and, if necessary, sue those infringing on the rights of the estate. 


An example of this would be the reported upcoming settlement of a case brought by Prince’s estate against a New Jersey company over a web domain name (Prince.com) which the estate allegedly sought ownership of to protect Prince’s trademarks and benefit the estate beneficiaries. 

This and so many other administrative headaches could have been avoided and the estate administration process streamlined if Prince had had a comprehensive estate plan. If you want to be a rock star to your family, have an estate plan created that protects your financial security while also protecting them after you are gone.

If you need assistance with an initial estate plan or would like to modify an existing one, Merlino & Gonzalez can help you. Contact us today to schedule a consultation. 

From our offices in Staten Island, New York, and East Brunswick, New Jersey, we represent clients in both states in all aspects of trusts and estates planning and administration, as well as commercial and residential real estate law.


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