A recent article in New York’s Daily News reports on the Queens County political machine and  its incredible control over proceedings in that county’s Surrogate’s  Court. It is a primer  on  the perils  of what can happen where there is no Will and no decent estate plan. Your lawblogger has often commented on the way in which a Public Administrator can affect the outcome of an estate. While the Public Administrator generally has the job of handling the estates of folks who die without a will and who have no relatives to step up and administer their estates, there is also a significant number of estates where executors and  administrators do not qualify to serve and they are replaced by the Public Administrator.

The Public Administrator is a business unto itself, collecting all of the assets due the estate, paying the bills and  disbursing to the distributees of the deceased. Along the way, they hire the brokers who are needed to sell parcels of real estate,  contractors to clean up  and repair assets and auctioneers to  sell items such as art,  coin  collections, cars and boats. The Public Administrator employs a law firm to handle all of the legal  work  involved and the fees generated and paid  can  be huge!

It’s good to be a friend or political crony of the Public Administrator and it can be really costly to an estate! Although some of the estates handled are small and unprofitable, estates valued  in excess of one million dollars are not  uncommon. The Public Administrator earns a commission on every  dollar brought into and estate –and on every dollar  paid out. While many of my clients  will  serve as  executors or administrators for the estate of a family member without taking the commission provided for by law, the Public Administrator always takes the commission.

So many of the problems that involve the Public Administrator can be avoided with a little bit of planning. One of the obvious answers, of course, is simply to have a well-drawn will appointing executors and trustees who are up to the task. Using self-directed assets such as an ITF bank account, retirement account or  a trust can basically eliminate the need for the Public Administrator to step into the breach. Failing to do this can cost many thousands of dollars and incredible aggravation.

Over the past holiday I treated my 15 year old grandson to a movie. Rogue One was not my choice but he enjoyed it immensely. At the close of the movie, a computer generated image of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia  appeared on the screen. One day later, Carrie Fisher passed away after suffering a heart attack on a flight about to land at Los Angeles.

Reuters Entertainment News reports that there is now a growing concern among actors over how best to protect the rights of their estates should they be posthumously depicted in some  future movie. California currently requires that the heirs may control the way in which their images may be used posthumously — if at all. It is now clear that this subject involves substantial  intellectual  property rights which need to  be addressed while the performer is  still alive. As computer generated technology continues to improve and expand, protection of these intellectual property rights will be of greater importance and provisions for this will become common features of contracts in the entertainment industry.

Walter Scott’s epic words quoted above are a good guide for all of us; especially for attorneys. In what would appear to be a perfectly ridiculous way to lose a law license, New York City attorney James A. Robbins has been disbarred after losing a will entrusted to his safekeeping and then making up a series of completely phony excuses as to why the estate was being delayed without ever disclosing that the will was lost. He evidently compounded his mistake by forging documents filed with the Surrogate’s Court in an elaborate cover up to try to probate the will.

The  completely dumb thing about this is that (as your lawblogger has reported at length in earlier posts) a lost will may be admitted to probate in a situation such as this where the loss and disappearance of the document can be explained by the attorney who was its last custodian. The facts and circumstances reported in the New York Law Journal would indicate that this was a situation where instead of a series of lies and fabrications, counsel could have succeeded in having a copy of the will admitted to probate by simply falling on his sword and admitting to his mistake and explaining that  the will had disappeared in his custody. We all make mistakes and , especially where the results are not fatal, an explanation coupled with an apology and cleaning up the mess is usually sufficient to placate most clients. However, even if the client’s reaction is to fire counsel, the loss of the business and the client is a far acceptable outcome to the loss of a professional license, a felony conviction and 500 hours of community service.

There is nothing like the death of a wealthy celebrity who dies without a will to bring scads of would-be relatives out of the woodwork, each claiming to be a long-lost brother, sister, cousin, etc. Loren Barr’s Trust and Estate Blog presents a great picture of the chaos which has unfortunately ensued after the death of music legend Prince this past April.

Prince’s estate is valued at between one hundred million and three hundred million dollars and, as so often happens with artists of his caliber, income continues to pile up not only from sales of his music but also from tours conducted at his palatial home in Minnesota. So far the probate judge has excluded no less than 29 folks hoping to game a piece of Prince’s fortune.

Minnesota law provides that the estate is to be shared equally by Prince’s siblings (and the children of any deceased brothers and sisters) . Getting past the humor of the situation that we see when claims are made by those claiming to be his children (he had none) and a woman claiming to be married to him in secret, the less humorous side of Prince’s estate is the fact that the combined federal and state estate tax bite will be 56%.

While this means that all 330 million of us will share a little piece of Prince’s wealth, your lawblogger finds it shocking that there appears to be no attempt on his part to plan for the inevitability of his death. A will would have been a good start as would be charitable foundations, trusts and other devices which would have allowed him to focus his wealth on people, causes and goals which meant much to him while minimizing the extent of his estate tax. Of course, his untimely death also proved to be a windfall for a battalion of lawyers and accountants who will  be involved in cleaning up the mess.

At the end of the day, this is a lesson for all of us to realize the importance of  getting our own houses in order.

The Will of David Robert Jones was filed earlier this month in New York County Surrogate’s Court giving the value of his estate at 100 million dollars. Not familiar with David Robert Jones? As the New York Times reported, He was far better known to most of you as David Bowie, the iconic musician who passed away on January 10th ( two days after his 69th birthday) after a quiet battle with cancer and just as he released his first new album in years. Since he never legally changed his name to Bowie, his estate goes forward under his birth name.

Your lawblogger remembers him best as Major Tom, whose “Space Oddity” has become a musical classic along with his equally classic “Changes”. Bowie was cremated and he specified that his ashes were to be scattered over Bali.

Bowie was a major celebrity who lived a very quiet life in New York. Generally, this blog highlights estates which are mired in legal controversy and generate perspectives which serve to educate my readers about the pitfalls of estate litigation and a guide for average folks. What strikes me about this estate is that it seems incredibly normal and well-ordered. While I live to be surprised by the unexpected , it sure appears that the estate of this incredibly talented and successful artist will proceed without legal battles or undue complications. If I am  wrong, watch this space for unexpected developments.

The Star Tribune has reported today that Ernie Banks, all star shortstop of the Chicago Cubs who died January 23rd at the age of 83 has left his estate to his caregiver Regina Rice. Banks made his will last October and the witnesses reported that he told them he was not intending to leave anything to his family. No surprise that although a Cook County judge has ruled that the Will was valid, Banks’ family is challenging it in court.

While there are often good reasons to justify a large bequest to a caregiver, the relationship  between a caregiver and his or her patient is one which allows substantial opportunity to exert undue influence on a testator. It is a relationship which warrants scrutiny, especially if the attorney drafter was retained by the caregiver and was not the personal attorney for the patient. This one will be in and out of the headlines for a while.

Stay turned.

The Brooklyn Eagle has reported that Kings County Surrogate  Diana Johnson  has denied a petition to renounce a  bequest to a grandchild of a decedent in the six million dollar estate of Sharon Lindsay. The total bequest to the decedent’s husband passes free of both federal and state tax but any inheritance received by the children or grandchildren is subject to New York tax which attaches to estates of more than one million dollars. In this instance, the tax on the grandchild’s inheritance would be two hundred thousand dollars. Petitioner asked the court to permit the renunciation of the infant grandchild’s gift to save the tax.

Basically what the court said is “Nothing doing!”.  The court noted that even though the petitioner’s position is that the money would be applied to the child’s good and welfare and that the child would suffer no loss by renouncing, there was absolutely no guarantee that the child would absolutely receive the bequest which would have been safeguarded until she reached the age of eighteen. The court found that the best interests of the child had to be given consideration in addition to the claims of the petitioner that the tax saving would benefit the child indirectly . Your lawblogger also notes that there are a myriad of intervening events that could end up by costing the grandchild the inheritance that her grandfather obviously intended she receive. The intentions of the testator need to be heeded. At the end of the day, this was a novel but totally understandable and appropriate finding.

The ABA Journal reports on the final failure of the Estate of Anna Nicole Smith to recover  hundreds of millions of dollars from the estate of her late husband J. Howard Marshall. Marshall, a Texas oil billionaire died at 89, a year after his marriage to Smith who was then 26. Not only are Smith and Marshall long gone, but also Smith’s son E  Pierce Smith passed away in 2006 after waging a war in bankruptcy court after Smith first lost in probate court in Texas. In dismissing the case –probably for the last time- Judge David O. Carter bemoaned the heavy cost of the protracted litigation upon the American taxpayer and compared the case to Bleak House, the Charles Dickens novel.After splashing across our headlines for the nearly twenty years, the case is finally at an end. Enough is Enough.

Your lawblogger truly believes that  Philip Seymour Hoffman was the best actor of his time. Too bad this does not extend to his ability at estate planning. As reported by the New York Post and by extra tv.com here , Hoffman did not want to make his three kids into "trust babies" so he left all of his estate to his long time girlfriend and the mother of his children, Mimi O’Donnell.Hoffman felt that she would always take good care of his children so he took no steps to carve out a specific bequest for them. These sentiments have also been echoed lately by Sting who has said that he is not leaving anything to his children in order to insure that they will have to make their own way in the world without relying on his substantial wealth.

How will all of this work out? Considering that Hoffman died with a needle in his arm. we can only hope for the best for his children.

Today’s Daily News reports that Menachem Stark, a Brooklyn businessman and landlord who was murdered in January died intestate. While it appears that his partners may contribute to cover his substantial debts in a bankruptcy proceeding, his failure to have a Will can only add to the financial distress of his widow and seven children. Even if the estate is able to weather the bankruptcy, intestacy will limit his widow to an ultimate recovery of half his estate with each of his children recovering one seventh of the other half at age eighteen, subject to the fees that will be generated by court-appointed lawyers who will be needed to serve as guardians ad litem of the children. The addage that "man plans and G*D laughs" takes on a new and bitter meaning in this case which can only serve as a warning to put one’s financial house in order.