Sunday, February 18, 2007

Estate planning lessons from Anna Nicole Smith

The financial and legal wranglings of Anna Nicole Smith are lengthy and legendary and will likely continue for years after her death.

In the mid-nineties she battled it out in courts for a claim to her late octogenarian husband's estate as well as filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying an $850,000 judgment against her for sexually assaulting her son's nanny.

Now, courts will have to decide who will receive Anna Nicole's estate. In 2001 her attorney, Howard K. Stern, drafted a will leaving her entire estate to her son Daniel. No provisions were made for future offspring and she didn't update her will after Daniel died and Danielynn was born five months ago. Since the only heir named in her will is deceased, the document is invalid and a probate court will likely award the estate to the infant Danielynn and appoint a guardian and conservator. Whoever that is will have access to millions. The legal maneuvering will be as bizarre after death as they were during her life.

There are a couple of important lessons here from an estate planning angle.

First, have a competent attorney help you draft your documents. Yes, Stern is a law school graduate and a member of the California bar but he had no experience with probate. No competent law professional would draft a will without provisions for children or grandchildren yet to be born. It should have had contingencies in the event that Daniel predeceased Anna Nicole.

Secondly, update your estate documents regularly and after significant changes, i.e., births and deaths. Not that Anna Nicole should have gone directly from the cemetery to an attorney's office, but this could have been greatly simplified if she had updated her will soon after Daniel died and Danielynn was born.

This is going to be interesting to watch.

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