Last week, the New York Times reported that Prince’s sister filed a Petition in probate court in Minnesota that stated that no Will had been found for Prince’s estate.
The Petition asked the court to appoint a regional bank as the administrator of Prince’s estate, and listed five half siblings as Prince’s heirs, in addition to the sister filing the Petition. This Petition is only the start of what’s likely to be a protracted process of sorting out what Prince left behind and how best to distribute his assets.
Reportedly, in addition to his financial investments, he left behind ownership of his publishing catalog in addition to archival recordings, and real property worth millions. Since his death, the Times reports that 650,000 Prince albums and 2.8 million tracks of his songs have been sold.
If, in fact, Prince left behind no Will (and this remains to be seen), his estate will be distributed among his heirs as determined by Minnesota’s intestacy laws. However this ends up being sorted out, one thing is certain: had Prince written even a simple Will, he would have his own wishes respected instead of seeing his legacy fought over by his heirs. Since his death, his friends have disclosed that Prince was a generous philanthropist as well, but without even the simplest estate planning documents, those charities will not benefit from Prince’s estate.
It’s sad to see someone who fought the recording industry for years to maintain control of his artistic legacy lose his ultimate legacy through a simple failure to put the basics in place. Don’t be like Prince.
In California, a Will can be quite simple and still be valid. A holographic Will, which is a Will that has the testator’s signature and material provisions written in that person’s handwriting, doesn’t even need to be witnessed or dated, to count. It doesn’t need to be signed at the end, as long as the document as a whole supports the finding that the testator signed it with the intention of authenticating the document. It doesn’t even have to be a formal legal signature or name — block letters, “love Mom,” or a family nickname can count. It just needs to show with “clear and convincing” evidence that the testator intended it to be their Will and wants to use it to give away property at his or her death, and describe the property to be disposed of. The courts look for what they call “testamentary intent” and, if they can find it, the document counts.
What does that actually mean? It means, for example, if a person with the mental capacity to know what they are doing and why writes on the back of a napkin that they intend this to be their last Will and that they intend, by this document, to dispose of their property consisting of their car, their bank account, and their collection of (other) cocktail napkins, and signs that, it could be submitted to the probate court and found to be valid.
I’m not recommending this. A typed Will signed in front of two witnesses is the more formal way to execute a Will, and the more common. But the law makes it easy to write a Will, there are few magic words or formalities to get in your way. Had Prince done even a simple Will, he could have given his fortune to the people and organizations that he wanted to benefit (and, if they are charitable organizations his estate could have gotten a charitable deduction from the estate tax bill for those donations).