“We can do things to protect our children, and protect what we’ve worked hard for our entire lives.”
— Laura Waller
“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.”
— Ambrose Bierce
The music world was shocked on April 21 when superstar singer, writer and performer Prince died unexpectedly at the age of 57 at his home in Minnesota. Prince had no known surviving children (though a Colorado inmate made a claim against his estate this week, saying that he was Prince’s illegitimate child) and left behind several siblings and half siblings. It is estimated that Prince’s estate could be worth more than $300 million.
Despite the vastness of his wealth, it does not appear that Prince had a will or an estate plan of any kind. In the absence of any planning on his part, Minnesota statutes of descent and distribution will determine who inherits his fortune. His siblings may split it equally. One thing is certain though: If Prince did indeed die without a will, he forfeited the chance to make those decisions himself.
Prince isn’t the only example of a person whose fame, wealth or knowledge of the law made it surprising that he or she died intestate. Perhaps the most famous example is our 16th president — Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a lawyer and should have understood the importance of planning. Following his assassination, his estate was valued at more than $110,000 — the equivalent of several million dollars by today’s standards. His unpaid debts totaled only $38.31. Fortunately for Lincoln’s family, Supreme Court Justice David Davis agreed to handle Lincoln’s estate and refused to accept any payment for doing so.
Among the most famous wills of all time was that left by William Shakespeare. Though there remains much debate about Shakespeare’s literary works, there is no doubt that the will is his original writing. In fact, there is a new book out this week by a local author about that very document. WesBanco Vice President Laura Waller has penned “Shakespeare’s Final Word,” which became available on Amazon.com earlier this week.
She notes that Shakespeare was “an extremely productive and successful theatre producer” and was incredibly wealthy at the time of his death. Though he had made his fortune in London, his will is very centered on his home town of Stratford. He left a bequest to the poor of Stratford that would be the equivalent of $100,000 today.
Written just weeks before his death, Shakespeare’s last will is carefully crafted to dispose of his estate in precisely the manner that he intends. Although the inventory of his estate is lost, it is clear that his will is written to deal with specific and unusual family circumstances. Much is written today about a provision in his will that leaves his wife “the second best bed.” Many modern writers take this as a sign of disaffection in their lives. Waller asserts that just the opposite is true, calling it a provision to “tell the world that this was a sacred relationship in his life,” noting that the phrase has a specific legal meaning and affect — one you’ll have to read the book to get the full scoop on.
“William Shakespeare and his attorney drafted a poetic legal document that is full of weight and meaning,” Waller writes. “It unfolds beautifully as an unbreakable testament to what he valued, whom he loved, and the real legacy he wanted to leave for succeeding generations. I have worked in estate and charitable planning for nearly 30 years, and I rarely see such well-drafted plans as this.”
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death passed just three weeks ago. The care he took to plan for the well-being of his family after his death remains a testament to him, and a lesson to all of us to plan accordingly for our families as well.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.