Chadwick Boseman made a mistake that cost his family nearly $1 million.
The 43-year-old actor died without a will. That piece of paper could’ve saved his widow nearly two years in court and $900,000 in legal fees.
And it’s not just Boseman. You might have heard of James Brown, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin. It took months, and sometimes longer, for their loved ones to get the money they died with.
You don’t have to be rich and famous to make this mistake. In fact, a lot of Americans are making this mistake right now.
Last year, a poll of more than 2,600 Americans revealed 9 in 10 don’t believe they need a will around the same age Boseman was when he died. Nearly a third said they didn’t have enough money to leave behind.
An estate planning attorney in Michigan tells Debt.com she’s not shocked to hear those statistics. In her 15-year career, she’s noted the absence of a will is more psychological than financial.
“It’s not fun to talk or think about your own death,” Julie Paquette of Paquette Law says. “People think it’s costly, and that it’s not something they want to invest money in. A lot of people just bury their heads in the sand.”
Paquette can’t say Boseman’s head was in the sand but does know his family ended up in a complicated and expensive legal process called probate.
Probate: a messy process
Probate is a court process to transfer assets like property or real estate when someone dies or becomes incapacitated like in a coma. That property can’t be sold or touched during the probate process. If your family needs money while you’re dead or in a coma, tough luck, go through probate.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: you’re dead or in a coma. You have money in the bank but owe a creditor for an outstanding bill. Who pays your bills when you can’t? Judges, lawyers, and creditors you’ve never met and could care less about your – or your family member’s – best interests.
That’s unless you speak with an attorney like Paquette. Her job is to get and keep your legal affairs in order. She helps people avoid probate by planning and keeping their legal affairs in order.
Estate planning attorneys specialize in state and federal laws making sure more of your money goes to people you care about – not to creditors or the IRS.
The typical probate process can take about a year, Paquette says, which is a long time after a loved one’s death.
Probate isn’t just for the dead
In 2020, Paquette’s firm was overwhelmed with panic calls from new clients. She recalls one phone call from the wife of a husband who was hospitalized battling COVID-19.
Paquette referred to the husband as the “breadwinner” and made all of the financial decisions of their household. When he was put in a coma on a ventilator, his wife couldn’t pay their mortgage.
She couldn’t “get access to start his disability at work, because his employer didn’t have her as legal authority to talk with HR and get his disability started.”
The husband had disability benefits but he couldn’t claim them for his wife. With an estate plan, there would be legal contracts outlining who could take care of that situation. Documents like a living trust help families avoid probate and save families time and money.
If had a living trust, he could’ve appointed his wife in charge of his personal and financial decisions. She could’ve gained immediate access to his disability and paid the mortgage.
One way or another the wife needed to call an estate planning attorney. The major difference is this time it was an emergency, it cost a lot more money and stress.
Probate is public
Most reporting on Boseman shows he aimed to live a private life. Without a will and estate plan, his private life and finances became very public because probate is intentionally a public process.
Paquette says laws vary from state to state but once a probate case is filed in court, the family has to make a public announcement in the local newspaper to alert creditors who the deceased may owe money.
Because one of the two main priorities is to pay back debts, a public announcement goes out to creditors. Paquette says laws vary from state to state but grieving families often pay bills they don’t need to.
“Hey, any creditor who thinks they should get a piece of this pie, come on down but some debts don’t have to be paid at death,” Paquette says. “All of your assets that are probate assets become public record. And it all is laid out there for the public.”
Boseman could’ve avoided the court process and media coverage if he had a lawyer draft up a document called a “living trust.”
What you should do
An estate plan is a just bunch of legal documents. Paquette says attorneys like her aren’t even necessary to write them.
Anyone can draft a Will and Power of Attorney on their own. Both are tough documents to draft up for an average person with little to no understanding of the law.
Estate planning attorneys can help with more complex situations and help you avoid making mistakes.
It’s likely you don’t know how complicated your situation is anyway. People wrongly assume estate planning is expensive. If that’s you, call an estate planning attorney like Paquette. She, and many others, don’t charge for a first consultation.
Estate planning is complicated and different based on your needs. Attorneys specialize in this type of law to ensure you file the right paperwork. Below is a list of the most common documents included in an estate plan.
- Last will and testament: Parents appoint a legal guardian of their children and pets. This also outlines who receives what of your assets. Who do you want to inherit your money, property, and worldly possessions? You may want to leave everything to one person. Maybe you wish to split it among family members or charities. This document includes all of your last wishes.
- A living trust: This contract guarantees your family will avoid probate. A trust is different from a will. What’s written in a will is only legally binding after someone has died. In the instance you’re in a coma, only a trust grants authority.
- A living will: This document is different than a last will and testament. It’s used for healthcare decisions while you’re still alive but incapacitated, hence, why it’s called a “living, will.” This will have written instructions for the kind of medical care you prefer. You won’t be conscious to tell the doctor to perform surgery or run tests. It’s especially important for religious people who don’t believe in “pulling the plug” on life support for dying coma patients. Some have opposition to pain management and organ donation.
- Power of attorney: Gives legal authority to someone to make decisions for you, personally and financially, when you’re dead or incapacitated. You have legally appointed someone to make your property, medical, and financial affairs. A power of attorney is for people battling illnesses, suffering from dementia or other debilitating diseases as a result of aging, but even as minor as being away for an extended period of time.
Death is heartbreaking and stressful to think about. But it happens and when it does life still goes on for your family. Boseman’s wife Simone has said the two years following his death were the “most challenging two years of her life.”
That grief is hard enough, Paquette reminds clients not to make life harder on their loved ones.
“You want to plan to make things easier on the people who survive you,” Paquette says. “It’s a difficult situation when someone passes away. People are grieving. They may have a lot of things to deal with. It’s an additional headache when you don’t have your affairs in order.”