I thought we had heard the last about Whitney Houston’s estate. It was big news in the estate planning world after the singer passed away as many people were interested in learning what would happen to her property. People were also interested in discussing what she could have done differently. Her actual plan was simple, so I thought it was not really newsworthy or grist for the gossip mill and the details once disclosed would not be worth further attention. I was wrong.
Houston’s mother and her sister-in-law recently filed a motion in court claiming Houston’s estate plan does not do what she intended it to do. They claim she wanted to make sure that no matter what, her daughter was always financially secure. Houston used a Testamentary Trust to leave her money to her daughter. A Testamentary Trust is created under your will and requires the probate process to activate and supervise the trust until it terminates. That makes the will, and your personal, private affairs, open to public view. Sometimes, probate courts even make case information available on their websites, so the curious don’t even have to leave the comfort of their home to poke their noses into a family’s private affairs.
Houston’s Trust releases assets to her daughter as she reaches certain ages. The claim is that this time schedule is not adequate for the purpose that Houston reportedly intended.
The mother and sister-in-law might actually be correct in this case. Houston’s Trust does have problems. However, they probably will not be successful in getting the court to do what they ask. How can I say this? Houston created her estate plan 20 years before she passed away. If it was not what she intended, she had ample opportunity to make changes. The fact that she failed to make changes in the plan over such a long period of time will be used to argue that the Trust as written at the time of her death was still what she wanted and should not be changed. That’s a powerful argument and difficult to rebut.
There’s a lesson in this story for all of us, not just the rich and famous. Regular estate plan reviews are the key to preventing the type of family disputes that the Houston family is going to suffer. Estate plan reviews are a great opportunity to focus on decisions made in past times and evaluate whether those choices fit today’s circumstances and your current feelings. Rethinking old choices with the help of a qualified estate planning lawyer is a great way to make sure that your plans are in step with your life.
When you review your plan, your lawyer will stand ready and able to help you with document updates. Or, if the documents are okay, the lawyer will have valuable insight as to your wishes if the family challenges the plan later.
I wonder when Houston last met with her estate planning lawyer? If we could speak to her now, my bet is that she’d say she regretted not being more proactive.