Amy & Dan Smith's Planning for Life: Famous Estate Blunders and How To Avoid Them

These celebrities’ tales are a strong reminder to review your estate plan before it’s too late.

There’s a calm comfort that comes with estate planning: a sense that your family will be taken care of after you pass away (hopefully at a ripe old age). Sadly, it doesn’t always happen that way. Skipping regular estate plan reviews can lead to forgotten details, and these can create confusion and havoc for your family or suck them into a time-consuming court case to iron everything out. Unfortunately, that was the case for these high-profile individuals and their loved ones.

I Got You Babe (And Babe): Back in 1998, after Sonny Bono’s untimely death in a skiing accident, we learned he never wrote a will. And a man claiming to be an illegitimate son attempted to get part of the Bono estate, as did ex-wife Cher, with whom he shared royalties on music they made together. His blended family became a public spectacle at a time of grief and uncertainty.

Avoiding the Oops: Resolve to write a will as soon as possible, and keep your beneficiaries updated. In our opinion, everyone over 18 needs an estate plan that includes a comprehensive will (at the very least) and properly documents your wishes. Remember, life can be unpredictable, especially if you have a complex professional or personal life.

The Girl Without a Ring: Stieg Larson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was devoted to his girlfriend of 32 years. When the Swedish author died without a will, his entire estate was divided between his father and brother in accordance with Swedish law. His beloved was left out, legally speaking.

Avoiding the Oops: Resolve to learn how estate laws affect nontraditional relationships. Learn and understand the laws that govern transfer of property in your chosen state or country, so you can protect the interests of those you love. And don’t presume others will honor your wishes without a written directive. Beyond writing a will, asset titling is especially important when you’re in a “nontraditional” relationship. Legally, your partner may not have the same rights a spouse would.

The Injustice of It All: Former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger presided over his own will, penning a brief 176-word declaration. But the poorly executed document left his family with more than $450,000 in estate taxes and court fees that could have been avoided.

Avoiding the Oops: Trust a qualified estate planning professional to help you write your will and other estate planning documents. To find one, ask for a referral or visit the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys or the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys. Most of us have limited expertise when it comes to complicated tax and estate planning, and even though dedicated software can help you create the necessary documents, it’s still a good idea to have an estate planning attorney review what you have.

No Laughing Matter: Dark Knight actor Heath Ledger drafted a will naming his siblings and his parents as beneficiaries. Sadly, he didn’t update it after the birth of his daughter, Matilda. When he passed away unexpectedly, there was great confusion about who were the rightful heirs of his estate, and the difficulties played out publicly.

Avoiding the Oops: Resolve to review your plan any time your life changes. Remember that every life event –births, adoptions, disability, deaths, marriages, divorces, even moving-should trigger a review and update your estate documents. If any of these events occur in the life of a beloved beneficiary, take note. That requires another look, too.

Learning from these celebrities’ experiences can help you avoid estate blunders of your own. Resolve to review your documents regularly and put new ones in place when appropriate. Don’t forget to take into account any changes that could impact your plan, including changes in family, personal interests, wealth and tax law. And talk to your financial and estate planning professionals – you may not recognize a change, but your advisors might.

From "Amy & Dan Smith's Planning for Life" column appearing monthly in the Blue Ridge Leader, Loudoun County, VA.

The foregoing article contains general legal information only and is not intended to convey legal advice.  For legal advice regarding estate planning, the reader should contact his/her lawyer.

Daniel D. Smith is a partner in the law firm of Smith & Pugh, PLC, 161 Fort Evans Road, NE, Suite 345, Leesburg, VA 20176. (Tel: 703-777-6084, He has practiced law in Loudoun County since 1980.