Celebrity Will Dispute - Case Study #4 - Michael Jackson: 3 Lessons Learnt

Updated: Oct 12

If you are born in the 21st century, you probably do not know who Michael Jackson is. Otherwise, he was famously dubbed the "King of Pop" and regarded as one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century for his contributions to music, dance and fashion, along with his publicized personal life.

He is also famously known as a big spender. Despite his enormous earnings, he had around $350 million worth of debt to his name at the end of his life. One of his extravagance was his own private zoo with orangutans, giraffes and an elephant.

Beyond the juicy gossips surrounding his private life, Michael Jackson did something surprisingly sensible before his death. He set up a smart estate plan.

Jackson’s will provides for the care of his loved ones. A separate document gathers his assets into a trust, ensuring that his affairs stay (mostly) out of the courts and (ideally) out of the public eye. Having said that, there are a few things we can learn from him through his death.

Lesson #1: Write a Will
Lesson #2: Consider a living trust
Lesson #3: Name a guardian

Lesson #1: Write a Will

A no-brainer? Actually, the majority of the population neglect to take on this basic estate-planning chore, allowing a judge to divvy up their assets by default according to country/state law.

Had Jackson been similarly remiss, his property would have been split among his three children, as dictated by California law. Instead, he divided it the way he wanted to, reportedly leaving 40% of his estate to the kids, 40% to his mother, Katherine Jackson, and 20% to charity.

Jackson avoided potential misunderstandings by citing each of his children by name and by specifically excluding his former wife, also mother of his two older children, Debbie Rowe, from any inheritance. That exclusion may not have been necessary, because the couple were no longer married, but it makes clear that Jackson purposely omitted her, rather than committing an oversight.

I would also like to call out that Michael Jackson had 3 versions of his will, which did create some disputes due to intentional omission. Having the prevailing will registered further ensured the legitimacy of his last will, minimizing any disputes and challenges from his father and siblings.

Lesson #2: Consider a living trust

Along with a will, Jackson established a living trust, also called a revocable trust. This estate-planning tool lets you transfer all your property, including cars, bank accounts and real estate, into a separately owned entity—in Jackson’s case, the Michael Jackson Family Trust—while maintaining control as trustee. Upon your death, the control is transferred to your designated co-trustee or successor trustee. Most people, including Jackson, set up their will to “pour over” so that whatever property remains outside the trust at their death eventually is added to it.

The beauty of a living trust for some is that the assets it holds at the time of death avoid probate, a public process. Avoiding probate can also make sense for regular folks with significant assets or property in more than one country because it spares their beneficiaries the aggravation of a prolonged legal process. It saves a lot of money, time and hassle.

Lesson #3: Name a guardian

In writing his will, Jackson created a legal framework for naming a guardian for his children, all of whom were minors. Without that document, the state—not Jackson-- would have made the choice about who would raise the kids. Jackson selected his mother as primary guardian and singer Diana Ross, his longtime friend and mentor, as backup. Although the court had to sign off on the selection, most judges abide by a parent’s wishes unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

Having said that, for Jackson’s choice of caregivers, he might have done better to pick someone younger than his 79-year-old mother. With so much money involved, it is generally recommended for parents to go with a trusted friend or relative who is reasonably close to their own age and circumstances. In this case, Jackson chose trust and continuity over relative youth.

Writing your Will is the very first step, and it’s an important one. But that’s not enough. In the digital age, the next step is to store your Will online. Otherwise, what happens if nobody is able to find your Will in a timely manner? liteWill is the only registration platform that is available globally and that provides the option to store your Will online. ‘A Will that is not online is like a Will that does not exist’.

This case study is a summary of underlying facts and related law suits. It is for information only. The statements and opinions are the expression of their author, not of liteWill, and have not been evaluated for accuracy, completeness or changes in the law.

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