What did Heath Ledger, Princess Diana, and the singer Prince all have in common? Each of them died with a botched estate plan—or none at all—and they cost their families a fortune in money and grief as a result.
The shock of Heath Ledger’s death from a drug overdose in 2008 was compounded by the discovery that his will left nothing to his only child, Matilda. Heath had prepared his will before Matilda was born, and the Australian actor never updated the document to provide for her.
The implications were heartbreaking. Heath’s father would inherit the entire $16 million estate, but Matilda, who was only 2 at the time, would receive nothing. Then, in a surprising turn of events, Heath’s father decided to give the full estate to Matilda, ensuring that his granddaughter would be well provided for. Heath’s father had no obligation to do this. By updating his will when Matilda was born, Heath could have prevented the uncertainty and legal costs his oversight caused.
In the Victorian era, death was almost fashionable. Funerals were well-attended social events and even rivaled weddings in their splendor and expense. Department stores offered an array of luxury clothing for grieving mothers and widows. Black fabrics were reserved for those in deep mourning. Then shades of gray and mauve were mixed in as one felt able to rejoin society. If death wasn’t celebrated, it was at least taken very seriously.
But then our Victorian cousins were closer to death than we are today. The average person didn’t live to see his 50th birthday, and more than three-quarters of all deaths occurred in children under the age of 5.
Today, people are living longer than ever, and as a consequence, death is considerably less in vogue. Improvements in medical care, diet, and occupational safety have prolonged life, but they have done little to combat the new threats to our existence. The perils of hurricanes, wild fires, and other natural disasters, and the terrors of shootings and random acts of violence, can be sufficient cause to worry about what the future holds.
In times like these, peace of mind comes from taking care to anticipate the things you can. Being prepared for the unexpected means setting aside money for an emergency, having health and life insurance, and even planning for your own disability or death.
Fans of the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary may remember this lyric: “Home is where the heart is, no matter how the heart lives.” Later in her career, Mary Travers’s voice may have aged, but she still sang this message of gay equality with undiminished gusto.
Home is where the heart is, especially for those of us in the LGBT community, who might not fit the traditional definition of family. The most important people in our lives may be bound to us more through emotional connections than legal ones.
Bonds of affection do make a family strong and cohesive, but they may not be enough to sustain it in a crisis. This is especially true for our children. The blending of families through adoption or remarriage can complicate the legal connection between parent and child. Being a loving parent means taking advantage of every benefit the law provides to protect this essential relationship.
William Wordsworth said that the best part of a good man’s life is “his little nameless unrememberd acts of kindness and of love.” In this spirit, many of us work to fill each page of our life’s story with small deeds of compassion and helpfulness. One such deed we might not have considered is planning our final farewell.
Anyone who has arranged the funeral of someone who has died knows what a challenge it can be. A funeral is the one event where the guest of honor has no say in what it should look like, where it should take place, or who should have a role to play – unless he or she plans ahead. Providing even a brief outline of your wishes is an enormous act of kindness to the people you leave behind. And this is one aspect of estate planning that doesn’t require a lawyer.