Estates and ‘What Did They Want?’

We just did a Facebook post about an article in the Washington Post last week about Prince’s estate – it was the two year anniversary of his death last Sunday. The title was:

What would Prince want?

A really evocative headline, to be sure. Prince, as you know, died unexpectedly and without a will. A brilliant businessman, an innovator, and a quick adapter to the new ways of distributing music, he somehow never got around to executing a will.

That’s what makes the headline so poignant – no one knows what Prince wanted to do with his assets, his music, his home. The probate court in Minnesota and the appointed administrators can only guess and try to act accordingly.

We’ve seen this article shared on more than a few estate planning blogs and Facebook pages as a very fitting cautionary tale. Simply, don’t die without a will. Please.

It hit us in a different way. You know by now, of course, that we represent people and estates during the probate process. We do not do estate planning. Still, though, the headline spoke to us as well.

When an estate is in probate, whether represented by an executor named by the deceased or an administrator appointed by the court (like in Prince’s case), certain choices have to be made. An administrator has little to work with, the very nature of her appointment means there’s no testamentary document to guide anyone. The estate is a blank slate, though soon people with interests in the assets will be around with suggestions.

Executors are in a better place – they have documents to guide them. Those documents, however, are rarely as comprehensive as people may assume. Nor can they be, really … unless the deceased executed a full suite of testamentary documents based on their latest financials, moments after a full accounting and the completion a financial plan, in the days before their death.

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That, of course, is seldom real life. Documents can be years old, it is almost certain one or more asset, heirs, or more have changed over the years. That puts the executor in the same position as an administrator, albeit it with at least a built-in outline.

Still though, there are times – inevitably – when even an executor has to sit back, take a deep breath, and wonder what the deceased would have wanted. Then they have to worry about how their decision(s) effect the other heirs … as well as how that then fits the documents.

Being an executor isn’t easy. Something else we’ve written about … a lot.