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What happens if you die without a clear estate plan?

Putting together an estate plan can help to reduce the risk of conflict when it comes time to manage a loved one’s estate. The creator’s plan can provide loved ones with guidance on the distribution of the assets within the estate.

But what happens when there is not a will? In most cases, state law would govern the distribution of the estate. This can mean unintended beneficiaries receive portions of the estate and can also translate to the need for probate — a long and avoidable court process used to distribute the estate.

In other cases, what appears to be a situation without a will could become more complex. A recent case provides an example.

A secret, handwritten will can lead to lengthy court battles

The case is that of a well-known musician, Aretha Franklin. Ms. Franklin passed in 2019 and appeared to leave her estate without a plan for distribution. No will. No trusts. Nothing to guide the distribution of her assets.

If this were true, state law would generally guide the distribution of the assets as noted above. However, while going through the estate, the executor discovered what appeared to be three handwritten wills hidden in the cushions of Ms. Franklin’s couch. This discovery has led to months of legal battles over whether or not the documents are enforceable wills and, if so, which one would guide the distribution of the estate. This has resulted in fractured family relationships and expensive courtroom battles – battles that continue even now. Due to this confusion and the resulting legal battles, it will likely be years before Ms. Franklin’s estate is settled.

Fortunately, everyone can learn from this case and avoid similar mistakes. The lesson: avoid a similar dispute by putting a plan in place and communicating this plan with loved ones.

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