Accomplishing Unique Wishes Through Estate Planning

After David Bowie’s death on January 11th of this year, many details of his estate plan became public when his will was filed in a New York City court. Unlike celebrities such as Anna Nicole Smith, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix, whose deaths (and, in some cases, poorly drafted estate plans) led to protracted court battles over their estates, it appears that David Bowie planned well. Not surprisingly, his estate plan clearly provides for the division of his sizeable estate among his surviving family and friends, and also includes an interesting request. Specifically, the will filed with the court directs that Mr. Bowie’s body be shipped to Bali and cremated there in accordance with Buddhist rituals, or, alternatively, if that method is not practical, that he be cremated and his ashes scattered in Bali.

Other celebrities have also famously implemented unique distributions or other actions in their estate plans as well. Leona Helmsley, for example, is well known for disinheriting her family in favor of leaving the bulk of her $12 million estate to her dog. Litigation ensued, and the court eventually reduced the dog’s gift to $2 million. Janis Joplin’s will authorized her executor to spend up to $2,500 after her death to throw a party for her friends and acquaintances as “a final gesture of appreciation and farewell.” Former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who coached the Tar Heels for 36 years, provided in his estate plan documents that each letter winner who played for him during his tenure at UNC be given $200 to enjoy a dinner out with his compliments.

For the rest of us, multi-million-dollar trust funds for pets or exotic instructions for the disposition of our remains may not be goals of our estate planning. That said, when you are considering your final wishes, you should think carefully about any specific or particularly creative goals you may want to achieve. With proper drafting, you can accomplish virtually anything (within reason). On the simple end of the spectrum, you may wish to make a gift to benefit a particular charity, for its general purposes, or for a particular type of research or work you want to specify. We have also assisted clients who wish to donate their bodies to science for research purposes. With more detailed and careful planning, trust funds and charitable foundations can be established to further specific goals or research.

Even more common than such charitable gifts and instructions regarding disposition of remains are client wishes regarding the overall management and distribution of assets after death. Often, our clients wish to benefit their family members – particularly children – but may have reservations about those family members’ abilities to manage their affairs. To address this concern, it is a common strategy to provide that assets will be held in trust after the grantor’s death, with very specific instructions about how the trustee should manage the funds. These restrictions can run the gamut from simple age restrictions, to use for the beneficiary’s "health, education, and maintenance in reasonable comfort," to strict trust provisions allowing distributions only for medical emergencies.

The important takeaway from these celebrity stories is that with proper planning, you can accomplish virtually any goals for your estate and your loved ones after your death. That said, to ensure that your wishes are implemented, and to avoid confusion, delay, and even potential litigation, it is crucial that you work closely with your attorney to understand and document those wishes. If you are ready to put your plans in place and be confident that they will succeed, please contact me at 847-705-7555 or