Aug 12, 2012

Could an estate mess like Michael Jackson's happen in YOUR family?

The ugly dispute raging over Michael Jackson's estate is juicy tabloid fodder. After all, the King of Pop was an enigmatic mega-celebrity, with three young children, no spouse, eight siblings, an estranged father, a beloved but elderly mother and a tangle of business relationships. And oh yes - an estate worth millions. Now, several of Jackson's siblings are battling to have the estate's executors removed, claiming his estate planning document is a forgery.

This very public drama seems far removed from the lives of the average person. Or is it? Could what is happening in the Jacksons' world happen in yours? As a Florida estate planning attorney who has counseled thousands of middle class families, I think the answer is yes. Whenever family dynamics, death and money intersect, there is the potential for a legal minefield. My job is helping my clients devise a plan that gets their families across with the least stress possible.

My clients are usually well aware of the flashpoints among their loved ones. They know which children do and don't get along, which child and grandchild is struggling financially and who is economically successful, whose marriage is stable or not, who has health problems, whose spouses are domineering, who is likely to make trouble going forward, etc. Try as you might, you cannot create a situation where all your loved ones get along perfectly all the time. But what you can do is create a perfectly sound estate plan that expresses your wishes unambiguously, crossing and dotting every legally required "t" and "i" and keep it updated. A good estate plan is the best method there is to minimize family disputes when you're gone.

In fact, questions about the validity of the Jackson will is the primary fuel that keeps that estate contest simmering. His will, signed in July 2002, is effectively a pourover will, and refers to the Michael Jackson revocable trust originally signed in 1995 and revised in March 2002.  Jackson left everything to his children and mother, and nothing to any other family member. He appointed music industry executives John Branca and John McClain to manage the estate assets for his beneficiaries. Although the will was found valid by the California probate court shortly after his death in 2009, Jackson's siblings claim that their brother's signature is a forgery; they say their brother was in New York the day he supposedly signed the document in Los Angeles. They also allege that Jackson had told them he neither liked nor trusted the men he appointed to manage the estate. Some legal observers note that the will and the family trust are rather simplistic, given Jackson's enormous wealth, and also question why the revised trust and will were signed on different dates.  

So many unanswered questions. One thing we know the answer to: Creating an unassailable, bullet-proof estate plan is the best way to keep your family from falling into this kind of legal morass. Contact our experienced Florida estate planning lawyers for assistance in creating your own plan. 

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