"Life is a party, and parties weren't meant to last" - Prince
On April 21st 2016, pop icon Prince Rogers Nelson was found dead unexpectedly at age 57, without leaving a last will and testament. Prince’s death is just the latest in the long line of celebrity deaths which leave behind a massive estate and no clear will; according to CNBC, some report that Prince’s estate totals “some $300 million.” Like Prince, wealthy musicians Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur all died without a will - or intestate. So what happens in those cases? What is the legal protocol?
In the case of Kurt Cobain, rights to his image and most of his music and estate were passed to his widow, Courtney Love, and into a trust for his daughter Frances Bean Cobain. After the murder of Tupac Shakur, who had neither spouse nor children, control of his estate passed to his mother Afeni Shakur. Many speculated that British singer Amy Winehouse’s estate would pass to her ex-husband, but instead the law defaulted the millions to her parents, Janis and Mitch Winehouse.
Although U.S. intestate laws vary by state, there are several common threads and underlying principles. The primary beneficiary is a surviving spouse, followed by (or in some cases sharing equally between) surviving heirs (children and grandchildren). In Prince’s case, at the time of his death he had no legal spouse and no known children (although since his death, some have spoken up claiming to be heirs). If no heirs are found, the bulk of his estate will likely pass to his sister Tyka Nelson, since his parents are both deceased.
After spouses and direct descendants, money, property, and rights usually pass to parents, siblings, half-siblings, nieces, nephews, and after that, even more distant relatives. The precise details about what kind of property is inherited, and by whom, will vary from state to state. For example, New York state inheritance laws dictate that if a person with a spouse and children dies without a will, their spouse inherits “the first $50,000 of your intestate property, plus 1/2 of the balance” with the rest distributing evenly between the children.
In intestate cases of no living relatives, legal spouses, or descendants, the state becomes the beneficiary. Laws recognizing domestic partnerships and non-legally-binding relationships also vary widely. Historically, same-sex spouses unable to be legally married in their state have time and again lost inheritance (and custody of children) to more distant blood relatives of the deceased.
For those wishing to allot money and property to specific loved ones and avoid this outcome, it’s very important to research estate laws for your state and speak with an attorney about drawing up the appropriate legal documents. Some might be inclined to set up their last will independently, but Lawyer.com reminds us that, “Experienced estate lawyers can guide you through the intricacies of the law and help make sure that after your death everything is divided up the way you intended it to be. If your estate documents including your will are not properly set up it could lead to a lot of confusion, fighting and even lawsuits among your loved ones.” Especially if there are complex situations in your family, such as divorce, remarriage, children, 401ks, IRAs, or taxable estates, an estate planning attorney is an invaluable investment.