Celebrities are notorious for interesting lifestyle choices, unique baby names, and eccentric collections. Shockingly, it is also common among celebrities who die unexpectedly to leave their loved ones embroiled in legal proceedings with one another because they did not enact a legally binding will or trust during their lifetime.

When Someone Dies Without a Will

When someone passes away without a legally binding will or trust in place, it causes a domino effect of difficulties for remaining family members and loved ones. Decisions concerning the decedent’s assets will be made by a court of law in a process called probate. This can eat up time and can cost approximately 3% of the total assets in court costs. 

Some people may ask “Well, if I am going to be dead anyway, why should I worry about it?” Fair question. One reason to take the time to plan in advance is because it is the ones we love the most who will have to deal with the headache of legal battles, fighting, or custody concerns on top of grieving for their lost loved one. 

This is exacerbated in the event of a celebrity death due to the constant news coverage involved in the sudden or accidental death of celebrities. In August 2022, actress Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco and 6 Days, 7 Nights) was killed in a car accident, leaving one adult son (20) and one minor son (13) behind. She was unmarried at the time, and the boys have different fathers. Anne did not have a living will or a trust. Her adult son, Homer, petitioned to be special administrator or executor, which was then contested by the father of her younger son Atlas, James Tupper. 

Although Heche and Tupper were never married, in January of 2011, Anne sent an email to Kevin Yorn and Melody Morre, her entertainment attorney and his assistant, stating that if she were to die, she desired her estate to go to James Tupper “to be used to raise my children, and then given to the children.” 

While this email has called into question what Anne’s real desires would have been, it does not constitute a legally binding will or trust. Who will be benefiting from this ambiguity? Mostly the attorneys representing all of Anne’s family members, embroiled in legal battles over her estate.

Celebrity Estates May Generate Income for Generations to Come

Anne Heche’s estate was valued around $4 million, and her new book Call Me Anne, yet to be released at the time of her death, will likely generate additional money for the estate. As a celebrity, her estate has the potential to generate revenue for generations to come. 

Superstars Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson all died without wills. Some celebrity estates have dozens of claimants, fighting over millions, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars. Michael Jackson’s estate generated over $242 million during the year following his death.     

It’s Not All About the Money 

While there is a lot of money and other material assets at stake when a celebrity dies without a will, it’s not all about the money. Oftentimes control of the estate will also control how the decedent’s legacy will live on. Sometimes there are minor children involved and the custody of those children is tied up with access to vast amounts of money, large homes, and other desirable assets. This can turn those minor children into chess pawns, treated like an object to be used by an adult. In short, there is so much to be gained by having a will, and so much to lose if no estate planning is done. 

How Anne Should Have Managed Her Estate

An email to your lawyer from over a decade ago will not hold up in court. Though the laws differ from state to state, in California where Heche resided at the time of her death a holographic will (or hand-written will) would have been probatable, if it were to meet a few standards. For example, if Anne had hand-written a will that was signed and dated. For a holographic will to be valid in California the testator must be over 18 and of sound mind and body. The provisions of the will also must be written in the testator’s handwriting.

While a holographic will would be better than nothing, there are infinitely better ways to handle estate planning, whether your estate is large or small. At Voyant Legal, we personally would recommend that, celebrity status or not, you put all your assets into a revocable living trust. One of the many benefits of a living trust is that if it is done correctly, your estate plan will allow your loved ones to avoid the costs and delays associated with probate. This can protect the privacy of celebrities, because when the execution of the trust doesn’t have to go to court, there will not be public court records detailing personal information.

Conclusion: Get Your Legally Binding Will or Trust Now

We can’t tell you what to do, but if we could, we would tell you to schedule an appointment with a qualified estate planning attorney today. Whether your main priority is to protect your children with clear guardianship documents or to make sure that your legacy is passed on the way you want, legally binding documents are the way to go. 

Review your estate plan regularly, and update it as your wealth and family grow. Without a clear, legally binding will or trust, there is no telling what will happen to your estate in the event that you were suddenly no longer here to call the shots. 

To listen to our full podcast about Anne Heche’s email-will, click here