Compliments of the McGee Law Firm, Attorney Brandon McGee
Nobody expects the unexpected. That truism was very apparent in Heath Ledger’s death on January 28, 2008. The 28 year old actor died of an accidental overdose from the interaction of prescription medications. Heath perhaps was best known for his Academy Award-nominated role in the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain.”
Heath Ledger died with a Will prepared in 2003 which left everything to his parents and siblings. After the preparation of the Will, Heath met Michelle Williams and together they had a daughter, Matilda Rose. New York law provides for unintentionally omitted after-born children, sometimes called “pretermitted heirs.” Under New York law, Matilda Rose will receive the same portion of Heath’s estate as if he died without a Will: all of it. There is no similar rule for unmarried partners. So, regardless of the possible unexpressed intent Heath may have had, Michelle will not receive from Heath’s estate.
The funds for Matilda Rose’s benefit will be managed by a court-appointed guardian for Matilda Rose’s safekeeping until she is eighteen. We will never know whether Heath would have wanted everything to go to Matilda Rose. He may have wanted a portion to go to Michelle, or his parents or siblings. But it is unlikely that he intended his estate to be under court supervision or administration until 2023, when Matilda Rose turns eighteen.
An updated estate plan including a Trust would have solved these problems simply. He could have addressed what portion of his assets should go to Matilda Rose and what portion, if any, should go to Michelle, his parents, and his siblings. Furthermore, he could have kept the money in trust for Matilda Rose until whatever age he thought was appropriate, naming a Trustee of his choosing to manage the money in the interim. This would have avoided court administration.
Further, after death, a Will must be filed in a public proceeding. Heath’s Will is free for all to see by going down to the New York County Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan. A Trust is a private document and can be kept from the prying eyes of paparazzi, a benefit for someone as private as Heath.
Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “Nothing endures but change.” That is still true. Our lives and priorities are ever in flux. As your family and financial circumstances change, be sure that your estate plan reflects your current wishes. A qualified estate planning attorney can help you make sure your plan accomplishes your current goals and remains private.
Written By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys