Okay, so you’re not the “King of Pop” – at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn some things from Michael Jackson’s estate that may help you avoid probate, or simplify the probate process. And since probate is the judicial procedure for establishing the validity of a will, the rules apply to all of us, wealthy and poor alike.
If you haven’t already heard, a recent Forbes article reported that some of the deceased pop icon’s siblings have apparently sent a letter to John Branca and John McClain, the executors of Michael Jackson’s estate. The letter – signed by sisters, Janet and Rebbie, and brothers, Tito, Randy and Jermaine – accuses Branca and McClain of faking Michael’s will, calling the document “Fake, Flawed and Fraudulent.”
Essentially, the siblings seem to be setting the stage for some kind of legal action related to Michael Jackson’s will. Whether they are successful in their challenge remains to be seen. But a few of the concerns laid out in the letter regarding the will provide some good lessons on estate planning and probate law – even for those with modest estates.
(Go here to read the actual letter.)
Calling for authenticity of Michael Jackson’s will
The letter makes it very clear the siblings are skeptical (to say the least) of Michael’s wish that Branca and McClain be named executors in the first place, and that Michael Jackson even signed the will in question.
In addition, the letter uses terms like “unconscionable deceit” and “egregious behavior” to describe some of the actions taken by Branca and McClain as they relate to dealing with Michael’s family, especially their 82-year-old mother, Katherine.
Obviously, Michael Jackson’s family is unique, its dirty laundry tabloid fodder for decades. But even the most loving family relationships can turn toxic when an inheritance is involved.
So to minimize any uncertainties related to your wishes and your estate plan, here are some suggestions on how you should approach this delicate subject.
Have conversations with family members
In the letter, Michael’s siblings claim that in the months leading up to his death, Michael told them “in no uncertain terms” that he “despised” Branca and McClain and didn’t want them to have anything to do with his estate. Yet, the will names them as executors. Again, time shall tell who is telling the truth. But to minimize any issues related to the probate process, take the time to have these kinds of conversations with your family.
When finalizing your estate plan, while your family may not agree with some of your decisions on naming executors, guardians, and trustees, ultimately, it is your estate plan. Let your family know the reasons for naming certain individuals, as well as how important it is that your wishes be followed. At the very least, they will be on notice that you have reached these decisions after serious thought and careful consideration.
Have conversations with each chosen fiduciary
Once you have made decisions about who you would like to serve as executor of your estate, guardian for your children, trustee of your family trust, power of attorney, etc., make sure you discuss your decision with each of these individuals.
A fiduciary must exercise a high standard of care in the management of another’s property, and is bound by duties of good faith, trust and loyalty. While you may be confident in someone’s ability and willingness to serve as a fiduciary, you don’t want them blindsided with this information when it’s too late. Give them a chance to mentally and emotionally prepare for this important role.
Similarly, give them a chance to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Acting as a fiduciary can be stressful and overwhelming; a fiduciary carries a great burden to act in the best interest of someone else. You are asking your executor to handle the administration of your estate, your guardian to raise your minor children, your trustee to manage your property on behalf of your beneficiaries, your healthcare agent to make medical decisions for you, etc. It would be perfectly understandable for someone not to feel up to performing one of these tasks. It’s better to know this in advance, since you still have time to choose someone else. Otherwise, a court may need to intervene so that a successor can be appointed in their place.
Make the copies of your estate plan available to your family
Unlike Michael Jackson, provide copies of your estate documents to family members, and be sure to communicate where to locate the signed originals.
The letter from Michael’s siblings recalls their frustration in trying to obtain a copy of Michael’s will from his executors. And when they finally did receive a copy, it did not include Michael’s signature, nor was there a signature page attached.
The probate process itself is very technical. State laws require adherence to formal rules when it comes to executing and witnessing wills and other estate documents.
But once those documents are signed and in your hands, it is up to you to make sure your family knows where to find them. It is also a good idea to give copies of the documents to certain trusted people, just in case someone questions their validity after you’re gone.
The originals should be safely stored in a location that is known to your family, such as in a fireproof safe in your house. If you decide to store them in a safe deposit box, however, make sure your executor knows where to find the key.
Probate is an emotional process that is sometimes complicated by family dynamics and disagreements about the validity of certain documents. However, keeping an open line of communication between you and your family might go a long way in minimizing any negative effects related to the probate process.
Contact my office if you are interested in learning more about the probate process in Massachusetts.