By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
October 24, 2019
Heath Ledger and Estate Planning for Life-Changing Events
Once you have created a will, it’s easy to forget. Unless there’s a specific reason, not many of us spend time focusing on what will happen to our worldly possessions when we’re gone.
This seems to be what happened to Heath Ledger in the years ahead of his passing. In 2003 he created a will, directing his estate (est. $20 million) be split fifty-fifty between his sisters and parents. His daughter Matilda wasn’t born until two years later.
The issue is that Ledger never updated his will after this life-changing event. So, save the altruistic decision of his named beneficiaries, things could have ended far differently for his “rightful” heir. In Florida, there’s something called the pretermitted spouse statute (http://bit.ly/2VDFeJ4) and pretermitted child statute (http://bit.ly/2Mgqvkj) that will kick in in these situations. This ensures the spouse and/or child is not left out unintentionally. Other states do not work the same way though, and this is not a Florida case.
Ledger’s Father Agrees to Pass the Entire Estate to Granddaughter
Heath Ledger had originally named his father, Kim Ledger, executor of his estate. When the details of Ledger’s will initially went public, the late actor’s dad responded with a vague statement that his granddaughter would “be taken care of.”
Oddly, Heath Ledger’s uncles seemed to have been most alarmed by his father’s response. They revealed that because of his deep mismanagement of Ledger’s estate (he apparently “plunged [it] into enormous debt”), Kim was ultimately removed as executor by court order.
Whether it was public scrutiny, familial threat, or simply a gesture of true altruism, Kim Ledger did ultimately adhere to the wishes of the rest of his family and pass the estate on to his granddaughter.
How Ledger’s Inaction Could Have Impacted His Daughter’s Inheritance
Heath Ledger’s daughter was lucky. If her relatives had chosen to do nothing (as they could have), she might not have inherited anything at all.
From a legal standpoint, the only way Matilda could have sought her right to Ledger’s estate was by filing a family provision claim. Which would have been difficult seeing as how she was two years old at the time of Ledger’s death.
So, what were the options, you ask? Well, in Florida this kind of scenario can lead to two separate family provision claims: Elective Share (or Election Against a Will, in this case) and Family Allowance.
Elective Share (or Election Against a Will)
Often, surviving children have the right to come forward and file a claim on an “elective share” of their late parent’s probate estate. Florida probate law says that share is 30 percent of all assets, including those which are not involved in probate.
The total amount is derived from the final estate value after debts. Administration expenses (like attorney fees, which can be quite costly) are actually not factored in, though.
Surviving children may also have the right to a sum up to $18,000 before the final distribution of estate assets and to exempt properties prior to paying out creditors’ claims against the estate.
This type of payment is known as a “family allowance,” and is meant to provide support for a decedent’s supported lineal heirs. Sometimes, the estate is even required to pay attorney fees involved in claiming this type of payment.
Luckily for Matilda, there was no need for a challenge like this in her home state because her family ultimately “gifted” the entire estate to her.
An Easier Way to Avoid the Pitfalls of an Outdated Will
While options do exist for your rightful heirs to stake a claim on your estate, the less time-consuming, less costly – and often less stressful – way to avoid the pitfalls of an outdated will is to simply make the proper updates while you’re still here.
Find an experienced estate planning team to guide you through the process of initially drawing up your estate documents (including a will), then schedule periodic check-ins.
Many clients of Haimo Law elect to meet with us annually (more often for complex estates), and we recommend at least checking in once every three years.
Need help updating your will? Get in touch!
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose®
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