By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
January 31, 2019
What We Can Learn from Stan Lee’s Estate Planning Problems
With 18 more Marvel movies still in the pipeline in addition to his half-century-plus as a comic industry icon, it’s pretty safe to say that Stan Lee’s status as a pop culture legend is secure. Unfortunately, if his personal dramas and the way he managed his business affairs are any indication, his estate (worth an estimated $50-$70 million) is a whole other question.
On more than one occasion, the media has described the months after his wife’s passing as a period during which the “vultures” descended upon him. Here are just a few of the financial woes the estate must reconcile:
- Mr. Lee signing over his power of attorney seemingly on a whim
- Reports of elder abuse
- His only surviving daughter’s tens of thousands in monthly credit card spending
- $300k in forged checks to a sham charity
- The purchase of an $850k West Hollywood condo
- Lawsuits against his companies
- Sexual harassment allegations against Lee
And – the strangest of all – the bizarre plan to merchandise Lee’s blood by creating an ink with it and signing copies of Black Panther comic books (which was later described as a masterminded, blood-stealing plot).
The story not told quite as often is that Stan Lee had a habit of telling people whatever they wanted to hear, his career was riddled with poor financial decisions, and he was purportedly susceptible to keeping unsavory company. Legend also has it that Lee’s Depression-born distrust of banks led to him stashing millions in cash all over his property.
Still, except for the occasional gossip column reference to demands from his daughter to make changes to her trust, it is still unclear whether Lee even had a will or any trusts in place at all.
In life, Stan Lee’s creations taught many people valuable life lessons about acceptance, overcoming personal hardships, and serving the greater good. After his passing, we stand to learn a thing or two more about life from Mr. Lee’s own entangled web of affairs.
What, specifically, can we learn?
Find trustworthy professional advisors.
From early on, the mogul managed all of his business affairs himself. He paid the bills and handled the bookkeeping, and because of it, admittedly made some big mistakes.
You need more than just a friend of a friend who happens to be a lawyer, too. It should be a professional estate planning attorney (depending on the situation, possibly a team of professionals) with experience in wealth management.
Information you want to gather while choosing representation includes how an advisor believes your assets should be organized and simplified, how your estate will be managed, what happens when you become ill or incapacitated, how they determine cognitive decline in an individual, and whether they believe your family members should be involved in planning, (and if so, when and how).
Always ask for references.
Decide your goals.
What would you ultimately like to achieve through your estate?
In one interview, Mr. Lee was asked “What’s on your wish list?’ to which he replied, “That I leave everyone happy when I leave…Happy that I took the right path.”
While this answer is quite romantic and certainly could be expected from the man who invented countless heroes and heroines, it just isn’t enough to sufficiently manage a half-billion-dollar estate.
Explicitly define your goals, and work with your attorney to define create a clear path to achieving them. If you and Stan Lee have the same wish, you need to tell your advisor(s) who exactly “everyone” is and what exactly it is you believe will make them happy. And most importantly, when you say you want to have taken the “right” path, be clear about where that path comes from, what’s on it, and where it leads.
Safeguard your assets.
There’s a saying about money – easy come, easy go. So, when you have accumulated a substantial number of assets, it is important to evaluate your options and allocate them to projects and plans that will continue to grow and that are sheltered from quick or emotionally-driven decisions.
Some elect to invest in products that have maturity requirements through third-party investment firms, and others choose to open trusts that benefit others and causes near and dear to their hearts.
It seems Stan Lee was interested in doing this by his founding of the Stan Lee Foundation, an organization designed to support programs and ideas that would improve access to literacy resources, and promoted diversity, national literacy, culture, and the arts. However, there isn’t much reported activity from the foundation after it opened its doors in 2010.
Educate and involve your children.
A 2018 Purdue University study revealed that many of a person’s money habits are already set by age 7. We believe you should educate and involve your children (in an age-appropriate manner, of course) on your estate management according to your personal philosophies.
Stan said to his daughter during another interview that his last words might be, “I hope you spend [the money] wisely because I have lived, and worked all of my life for your mother…and you.” However, given the hearsay about her spending habits and fits of rage over financial matters, one could venture his work ethic and philosophy on money weren’t what he was able to instill in her.
The Purdue study also concluded that at a certain point making more money no longer makes people happy, and if the reports about his daughter are true, she is a good illustration of this point.
Plan for incapacity and disability.
Decide ahead of time who will be appointed your POA, and document it. Advanced directives – both for physical and mental health – should be put into place well before issues arise.
You may even consider a conservatorship upon completion of your estate planning. This is a legal guardian or a protector who is appointed by a judge to manage the financial affairs and/or daily life of another due to physical or mental limitations, or old age.
In one of Lee’s final interviews, he was asked whether he thought a conservatorship wouldn’t make the most sense so that those he felt had taken advantage of him would be kept away by court order. His response: “no.”
It goes to show that monitoring and maintaining a plan can become difficult as a person ages and the probability of cognitive decline increases. We’ve seen plenty of red flags across the rampant and contradictory reporting in Stan Lee’s final months. Planning much earlier on may have made a difference in the way things played out for this icon.
Periodically review your plan.
Plan to occasionally sit down with your estate planning team to re-evaluate your beneficiaries, confirm that your goals are still the same, and make sure you’re on the right track.
This step, combined with the aforementioned tips, would surely have prevented the seemingly near-constant and tumultuous shifts in the handling of the Lee estate.
At this point, his daughter is left to deal with the numerous contracts and business dealings likely floating around out there in the City of Angels on her own, and depending on what documents surface and whether any disputes arise out of them, we may see costly legal battles do away with whatever remains of this legend’s hard-earned wealth.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose®
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