Learning from High Profile Mistakes – Keep Your Will Updated and in Writing

by | Mar 21, 2017 | Estate Planning |

This is the second of a three-part series on the importance of wills.

When an individual passes away, their will is only as concrete as their last updated version. Drawing up a valid will is only the first step in the process of making sure that your estate is handled to your most current specifications.

An Outdated Will Might Leave Your Children With Nothing

For example, in January 2008, the already successful 28 year old actor, Heath Ledger was less than a year away from what would become his most iconic and lauded role – a dark turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated, second installment of his Batman series, The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, Ledger would not live to see the massive success of the film.

Heath Ledger died of what was eventually confirmed to be an accidental overdose caused by a combination of prescription drugs. His family, friends and fans were taken by surprise, but fortunately the actor had left behind a valid will that left his $20 million estate to his parents and three sisters. However – Ledger’s will, as it turned out, was several years old and had been drawn up before the birth of his only child, daughter Matilda Rose. The will contained no details that would provide his daughter with any claim to his considerable estate, and was further complicated by the fact that the child’s mother, actress Michelle Williams, and Ledger had never married, meaning that the estate wouldn’t default to Williams for their daughter either.

In this case, everything worked out for the best. Ledger’s parents were very clear immediately after his death that they would be gifting the entirety of his estate to his daughter, which is what they know he would have wanted.

Don’t Cut Corners In Your Planning

Your updated will needs to be legal and valid. There are a lot of stories about people who try to amend their will only in handwriting – leaving a note scrawled on notebook paper in a desk for someone to find once they pass. But these quick, unofficial amendments may not be recognized as a valid update.

Even royalty are not immune to having their wishes ignored for not following through with the proper procedures to update the intentions for their estate. Princess Diana left behind a letter that was found in the documents for her estate plans, detailing that a quarter of the personal possessions that would be left behind after she died should be given to her 17 godchildren. But, it also left the decision of what should go to whom to the executors of her estate – in this case, her mother and sister. Rather than generously dole out the items in question, Diana’s mother had the letter thrown out in court. Because the letter was never an official part of Diana’s estate planning, a judge ruled that her executors were within their right to ignore the instructions of the letter and were not obligated to give her godchildren what had been suggested.

Rather than the estimated $150,000 worth of items meant for each godchild, they received only mementos.

Your will needs to be updated periodically to reflect the major life events that will change the way you want your estate to be distributed. There is a slight safeguard if you include language in your original will that accounts for the future possibility of having children, but if you have very detailed ideas about who should receive what, it is definitely in the best interest of the inheritors of your estate that your will contains that important information.