Estate Planning Done Right– Settling the Estate of Joan Rivers

This week we will look at an example of a celebrity who appears to have made a number of wise decisions in her lifetime estate planning.  In contrast to the complicated, acrimonious and all too publicly scrutinized process of settling the Estate of James Brown that we looked at last week, the estate planning of Joan Rivers is elegant in its simplicity and exemplifies a number of the recommendations we often make to our clients.

The will of James Brown was what is termed a “stand-alone will.”  That is, he chose not to create and fund his charitable trust in his lifetime.  Rather, he left the work of creating his charitable trust and otherwise distributing his assets to be done via the instructions he provided in his Will.  In contrast, Joan Rivers, whose real name was Joan R. Rosenberg, created the Joan R. Rosenberg Family Trust on the same day that she executed her Will in 2011.  Her Will is a very simple document we refer to as a “pour-over will.”  The function of her pour-over Will is simply to instruct the probate court to see to it that any assets that happen to be left in her sole individual name get put into her existing trust.  We do not know for sure, but it his highly likely that the vast majority if not all of her substantial wealth was already transferred into that trust prior to her death.

There is some speculation that the nature of her untimely death may result in her family bringing a wrongful death malpractice suit - which can only be brought by her Executor(s).  Therefore it may be that the speculative value of such a claim is the only significant asset in that probate estate.

The various intra-family disputes between various family members of James Brown and his manager and his named fiduciaries, not to mention the South Carolina Secretary of State, have all been well reported by the hungry news media.  Those various legal maneuverings easily become fodder for media scrutiny because probate is a very public, transparent process.  In the case of Joan Rivers, the filing of the Will and the probate process is of fairly minor significance.  Who the beneficiaries of the Rosenberg Family Trust are and what sorts of provisions are included cannot be known because settling her trust is completely outside of the probate process. 

We do not happen to have many entertainment celebrities in our practice!  But what we do have are many families who genuinely desire to keep their financial affairs private.  That is not simply a question of keeping affairs private from those outside of the family.  It often extends to keeping certain things private from within the family.  For example, parents may wish to hold assets in trust for their younger children and it may not be wise for those younger children to know too much about the amounts of assets held in trust for their benefit.  That is why we counsel families to engage in the type of estate planning where the probate process is a mere formality.

Lastly, we strive to get families to understand that estate planning is an ongoing process that must be maintained over one’s lifetime. It is not a mere one-time document drafting exercise.  Joan Rivers left only one child and one grandchild. That means her family composition is much simpler than many of the families we see.  Nonetheless we hear that Joan Rivers amended her trust eleven times, including three complete restatements.  We cannot know the details of those changes and updates.  But we can be sure she appreciated the need to modify her plan as time went on due to various changing circumstances.  In our practice, we encourage clients to maintain their membership in our LifeBridge™ program in order to be sure that the ongoing process of regularly reviewing one’s estate plan actually happens, and to make periodic updates as needed.

Please call us at 860-769-6938 if you have any questions about the issues presented above or if you care to discuss any other planning issues with us.


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