Queen of Soul Dies Intestate

Like Prince, Bob Marley, Princess Diana and Pablo Picasso before her, Detroit’s Aretha Franklin died intestate last month. Here in Michigan, dying “intestate” means that you die without a will, trust, or other estate planning instruments.

What happens when you die without an Estate Plan?

If you die and have not put an estate plan into place, then your assets must be probated in the county probate court where you die. Unless your assets are probated, they cannot be sold or otherwise disposed of following your death.

In the case of Ms. Franklin, her estate is estimated at over 80 million dollars. She has four adult children; all “interested parties” under Michigan’s probate code. One of her sons has “special needs”.

Now, Ms. Franklin’s assets will be disclosed and on public display. How, and why? Because she has died without a will, an estate has been opened by Ms. Franklin’s niece in the Oakland County Probate Court and assigned to Judge Jennifer Callaghan.

One of the key documents in an estate filing like the Queen of Soul’s is the estate “inventory”. This public document will list all of Ms. Franklin’s known assets; each asset will be assigned a value.

Pursuant to Michigan’s probate code, known as the Estates and Protected Individuals Code or EPIC, a decedent’s children are considered “heirs at law”. They will take equal shares of their famous mother’s estate, after all creditors have been satisfied.

Another aspect of a decedent’s probate estate is that creditors may file claims against the estate for moneys due and owing. This wreaks havoc on the decedent’s privacy and causes undue stress for surviving family members.

Components of a good Estate Plan.

You do not need to be wealthy to benefit from an estate plan. Most good estate plans will include: a trust, a power of attorney -both medical and financial- and a “pour over will” among other documents.

A trust is beneficial to the extent that it keeps a decedent’s business out of the probate court and away from the eyes of the public. For example, if Ms. Franklin had died with a trust in place, then no decedent’s estate would have been filed.

The trust is the document that lays out the decedent’s [also known as the settlor’s] intent relative to the objects of their bounty, i.e. their assets. A “pour over” will is used to ensure that all the decedent’s assets eventually make it into the trust.

Without a public decedent’s estate, with its attendant inventory and creditors’ claims, the world could be kept from gawking at Ms. Franklin’s assets. Also, a proper estate plan usually minimizes challenges among family members.

Best Practices for an Estate Plan

So what steps should the Queen of Soul taken to put a proper estate plan into place? First, research local estate planning lawyers; speak with trusted family or friends that have estate plans to get a referral. Or do some basic research on the Internet.

Second, think carefully about the disposition of the objects of your bounty and who you want to be in charge of executing the estate plan. These important decisions will not be left to the intestacy provisions of EPIC. Rather, they will be spelled out in your trust and other estate planning documents.

Third, be sure to alert family members you have nominated to serve as a fiduciary upon your death. Also be sure these family members know where to find your estate planning documents.

We Can Help

If you or a family member would like to learn more about estate planning, give our law firm a call. We offer a free consultation to explore your estate planning options.

Oakland County Lawyers


Planning the Unplannable: Estate Planning and Suicide

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” Recently, the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have shocked the world; like Hemingway, the two stars committed suicide.

Bourdain, the star of Parts Unknown on CNN and Spade, a top-of-the-line clothing designer, had little in common other than fame. Yet, their lives ended in similar ways only days apart.

Hemingway’s quote, unwittingly, makes a significant point about probate administration. Death treated the two stars equally as will the probate laws. But, Hemingway’s quote also leads to another topic: suicide and its effect on estate planning.

The details of how the two stars lived, and how they planned their estates, will distinguish the administration of those estates. How does suicide effect an estate plan to secure a smooth transfer of wealth to the next generation?

Thankfully, if an individual effectuates a proper will or trust in their lifetime, suicide will not impact their estate plan. An appropriate and proper estate plan provides for the transfer of the objects of a person’s bounty at death.

The manner of death, in contrast to Hemingway’s proposition, is not relevant to administering a properly executed estate plan. There are, however, some exceptions. One glaring exception comes to mind: life Insurance.

Life Insurance

In the context of life insurance, the facts of an individual’s death may affect payment of the death benefit, particularly with regard to suicide. Life insurance policies are binding contracts. Therefore, the terms and conditions of the contract convey the benefits.

A life insurance contract contains the terms of the agreement between the carrier (the life insurance company) and the named insured (the person buying the life insurance policy). The contract also functions to name a beneficiary; the person entitled to receive payment of the death benefit. In an effort to minimize risk, many life insurance policies contain a suicide exclusion clause.

Suicide Exclusion Clause

A suicide exclusion clause is a contract term which operates to void the payment of life insurance benefits to the beneficiary if the named insured passed away as a result of suicide. This becomes particularly problematic when the named insured’s estate plan provides for life insurance benefits to be distributed in a particular way.

Enforcement of a suicide exclusion clause can be challenged in cases of assisted suicide. Some policies have sunset clauses on the suicide exclusion clause. After owning the policy for a given period of time, benefits are paid even in the event of a suicide.

However, as seen in the Bourdain and Spade cases, suicide is not something people take into account in their estate plans. Suicide occurs for a number of reasons; the question of why plagues survivors of the deceased.

Suicide is a tough painful subject. Nevertheless, we recommend taking a close look at your life insurance contract to determine the scope of your coverage.

We Can Help

If you have questions about life insurance, probate, estate planning, and/or the process please contact our office to schedule a free consultation. We can assist with your estate planning goals.

There is Hope

If you or a loved one needs help, please contact the resources below. These resources are confidential and free.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 1-800-273-8255.

This lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress. The lifeline has information about prevention and crisis resources along with best practices for professionals.

Crisis Text Line – Text CONNECT to 741741.

Sending a text in the United States connects the caller to a trained counselor ready to listen.


Vegas Shooter’s Estate May Be Assigned to Public Administrator

Used to be a mass-shooting was something that sadly occurred once or twice a year in the U.S. Now, tragically, such shootings are weekly events.

With this in mind, we noted that probate litigation instantly entangled Las Vegas mass-shooter Stephen Paddock’s estate. Most mass-murderers have little or no estate to administer.

In Paddock’s case, a platoon of lawyers wrangled for control of the estate, the size of which is a hotly contested topic of his own right. Some estimates value the decedent’s estate at over five million.

Separate from Paddock’s estate, more than $22 million is available for the shooting victims. Some of the lawyers representing those victims suggest folding the estate into the victims’ fund.

Victims’ lawyers are seeking to prevent Paddock’s heirs from benefiting from any estate distributions. Along these lines, the shooter’s family has promised not to make any claim to the decedent’s estate. Under Nevada law, Paddock’s estate would go to his mother.

Also, some have suggested a public administrator -a professional fiduciary- not related to the family should be appointed to administer Paddock’s estate. Probate court judges frequently use public administrators in high-profile and high-conflict cases.

Because a public administrator is neutral, they are ideal to administer and clean-up problem cases. Also, basic fiduciary duties and rules apply to public administrators.

In the Paddock case, the local public administrator first declined the nomination to serve; then changed his mind and indicated a willingness to administrate this hot-potato of an estate.

With the issue unresolved, the Clark County probate court has scheduled more hearings to address these and other problems in the case.

Selecting an appropriate person to administer a decedent’s estate is an important decision. Sometimes, however, as in the case of Stephen Paddock, a probate judge may trump the decedent’s selection.

We Can Help

If you have questions about the probate and estate process, contact our office to schedule a free consultation. We can assist with your estate planning goals.


Adult Guardianships for the Elderly

Adult guardianships are more common today as the so-called Baby Boomer generation ages. Yet, in our free society, one adult does not legally control another without a compelling reason.

Adult Guardianships

Michigan’s probate code provides for adult guardianships under the proper set of circumstances. But what happens when the guardian abuses the protected individual?

Over the weekend, we noted with interest an article on this topic in the Sunday NYT. The article highlights a woman who spent thousands of dollars and years of effort attempting to wrestle her father’s guardianship from a financially abusive significant other.

The unmarried couple lived in Las Vegas; where else. They were together for many years. Sadly, the man eventually exhibited signs of dementia.

Eventually, the companion told the daughter she could no longer provide adequate assistance. But when the daughter arrived to collect her father, the companion blocked the daughter using her guardianship authority. We have seen this dynamic in many cases here in Oakland, Wayne, Genesee and Macomb counties.

Upon obtaining guardianship, the female companion inserted herself into the man’s bank account, removing over $200,000. Eventually, this disbursement resulted in a criminal conviction.

Records unearthed by the man’s daughter -his only child- showed the companion racked-up thousands of dollars in gambling debts. The daughter was devastated by the probate judge’s ruling -after 12-days of trial- to continue the companion’s adult guardianship.

Pattern of Elder Abuse

The case follows a pattern of exploitation for the elderly or mentally incapacitated. Misplaced trust in a romantic companion or friend often has grave financial consequences.

As is typical is such cases of elder abuse, the companion restricted daughter’s access to her father. In one incident, the daughter racked-up over $2500 in legal fees simply to broker a dinner with her father.

One way the daughter could avoid this scenario is to take an early proactive role in her father’s affairs. By law, notice of an adult guardianship proceeding must be provided to the adult children of an allegedly incapacitated individual.

For whatever reason, the daughter did not initially object to the guardianship proceeding. She came to regret that decision.

Best Practices

From the probate judge’s perspective, a big red flag is family member indifference to the initial guardianship petition.  The best time to object is at the outset of the probate court proceedings.

Adult guardianships are controlled by statute here in Michigan. An entire chapter of the Estates and Protected Individuals Code [EPIC]  -our probate code- addresses adult guardianships.

Because having such control over an adult is disfavored under the laws of our free society, EPIC deploys several safeguards. Before a guardianship is established, a Guardian Ad Litem investigates the petition, interviews the allegedly incapacitated individual, and reports to the probate judge.

Also, a hearing is conducted where all interested parties have an opportunity to be heard. If the probate judge finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that a person is incapable of taking care of their own affairs, the guardianship is often granted.

Once granted, the guardian must visit their ward at least once per quarter and file an annual report. If problems arise, then interested persons can file petitions addressing their concerns.

By statute, the probate court orders a guardianship review on its first anniversary, and then every five years thereafter.

Prevent Disruption of Healthy Family Relationships

In the Las Vegas case, the adult guardianship completely disrupted the father-daughter relationship. The guardianship was a legal barrier to any ongoing relationship with her father.

This case is heart-breaking. Adult guardianships do not have to unfold like this.

We have seen many cases where the fiduciary, whether a guardian, conservator or trustee, abuses the ward’s finances or physical condition. Usually, but not always, the probate court addresses such issues. That can only happen, however, when a judge is aware of the problem. Only the enumerated interested parties can bring an issue before the court.

When serving as a guardian, best practices include maintaining accurate financial records, documenting all medical treatments, and frequent ward visits.

We Can Help With Adult Guardianships

If you have concerns about an adult guardianship, contact our office to schedule a free consultation. Our law firm has experience with these and other probate matters.

Oakland County Lawyers


‘Homes for the Aged’ Get a Few Dozen Liquor Licenses

This post examines new legislation that calls for the issuance of limited liquor licenses for certain ‘homes for the aged’. These are licensed facilities restricted to residents over the age of 62.

Should the aged have easy access to liquor? Some consider drinking alcohol on a consistent basis is a compassionate way to treat the elderly; others see it as irresponsible.

Just before the Christmas break, Governor Snyder signed PA 328, which provides for limited liquor licenses -a total of 25- in homes for the aged. Owners of licensed facilities that meet requirements of the new statute are candidates to receive one of the available  licenses.

Why shouldn’t the elderly be able to imbibe alcoholic beverages? This is a very progressive piece of legislation that provides for the compassionate care and comfort to our aging population.

The 25-license limit, however, seems arbitrary and capricious. There are 83 counties here in Michigan; that’s one license for every 3.35 counties; demand will outstrip supply. A liquor license could drive-up the cost of housing in the select few homes that acquire a license.

This limited licensure is  known as a competitive licensing system. Given the limited number of licenses, the state will be able to select from the best of the applications; the cream of the crop.

Only the elderly with means would then be able to attain this compassionate care provision. Drinking among rich elderly residents in assisted living facilities has been identified as a problem in many affluent areas in Michigan.

Perhaps, when the commission created to study the select facilities completes its mandate, the legislature will see fit to expand the number of limited liquor licenses in the ever-ubiquitous ‘homes for the aged’.

If you own a licensed facility, consider retaining competent counsel for the application process. Getting in on the ground floor could be important if this social experiment goes well.

Oakland County Lawyers


Author Tom Clancy’s Estate Litigation Finally Concludes

Estate administration and trust litigation too often go hand-in-hand. This post explores the importance of proper estate planning.

Back in November 2014, we noticed an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal regarding the estate administration and resulting litigation of best-selling author, Tom Clancy. Mr. Clancy’s estate consisted of a family trust which designated his widow as the primary beneficiary; a separate trust awarded assets to his four children from a prior marriage.

Among the items in the sizable estate were a 12% stake of the Baltimore Orioles, a Chesapeake Bay home, six penthouse condominiums on Baltimore’s harbor, 26 collectible handguns and long guns, and even a rare World War II tank.

A dispute arose when Clancy’s widow claimed the decedent’s estate should not be liable for millions in estate taxes. Ms. Clancy claimed that it was Mr. Clancy’s intent that the children’s trust pay all estate taxes. Mr. Clancy’s children disagreed; they asserted the tax liability should be split evenly between both trusts.

That dispute, which lasted nearly two years, recently resolved with a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling. The appellate court held that the widow’s trust was not liable for any taxes. The court further ruled that all of the $11.8 million dollar tax bill was to be paid from the $28.5 million children’s trust.

Probate Judge Lewyn Scott Garrett had determined Ms. Clancy’s inheritance should be entirely tax free. Specifically, the judge pointed to language that he claimed offered the clearest and most predominant evidence of Mr. Clancy’s intent.

This case is a prime example of the importance of having a properly executed estate plan in place. Even Tom Clancy, an author whose estate was worth an excess of $83 million, didn’t have a plan in place that would keep his estate free from litigation.

Although his estate plan involved a complicated series of trusts, the language was sufficiently imprecise to precipitate probate court litigation. The case points to the importance to be clear in all estate planning documents relative to the intent of the settlor(s) or grantor(s) of the trust package.

In this particular instance, lack of precise trust language addressing the estate tax issues caused a dispute that could have been avoided. By not having this language, the estate went to litigation. This likely resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary attorney and court fees. Further, it also caused nearly two years of needless stress for members of the family.

Mr. Clancy’s case demonstrates that a proper estate plan avoids disputes between common adversaries: a decedent’s children and a subsequent spouse. Mr. Clancy, with his trust package, died thinking he has a solid estate plan. Unfortunately, despite his detailed planning, his lawyers missed the tax issue.

We Can Help

Because the corpus and circumstances of a trust and its beneficiaries change over time, the constant diligence of a skilled estate planning lawyer is essential.

Our law firm offers free consultations to evaluate your estate plan. If you would like to explore your estate planning options, contact us to schedule an evaluation.

Oakland County Lawyers


Digital Estate Plans in Michigan

In the modern era, most people have dozens of electronic accounts making-up an electronic profile and creating a digital estate. What happens to your digital assets on death, or upon your incapacity? Do you have a digital estate plan?

The New Act

Earlier this summer, the Michigan legislature addressed these questions when passing the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act; an act closely modeled on a well-thought-out uniform act.

In this digital age, our personal, business and financial activities are stored and maintained electronically, each with online access. We shop, bank, invest and pay bills online; we keep up with family and friends, and transmit communications online; family photos and important documents are stored in the cloud.  These electronic accounts make-up a person’s digital estate.

Digital Custodians

Digital custodians typically are companies that store your electronic data. Examples are Google, Facebook, banks, and financial institutions.

Under the new law, four categories of people can legally request access to the information held by the digital custodian(s) of your accounts. These include: a power of attorney, personal representative, trustee or conservator.

These custodians control access your digital assets in the event of your incapacity or death.  Problem: how do family member access financial information, tax returns, or treasured photos when digital custodians refuse access to your accounts?

Some digital custodians offer an online tool that would allow users to direct the custodian to disclose the user’s digital assets to a selected individual.  Until recently, short of giving a list of all of your online accounts together with passwords to the selected individual, this online tool was the only way to insure that family members or other designated individual would have access to your digital assets when necessary.

Directing Your Digital Assets

Digital asset direction using an online tool still overrides a user’s directions to the contrary in a written document. Under the new statute, a user may now direct a designated digital custodian to disclose some or all of the user’s digital assets to a fiduciary through a will, trust, or power of attorney.

Thus, while the new act allows a fiduciary to direct the digital custodian to terminate the user’s account, it does not expand or provide any new rights to the fiduciary. Nor does the act change the rights of the digital custodian or user under the terms-of-service agreement. To obtain your digital asset content, your fiduciary must supply the digital custodian with a written disclosure request and a copy of the fiduciary’s authority.

The act gives the fiduciary the same rights to digital assets as the owner. However, a fiduciary cannot impersonate the owner.  The digital fiduciary has the same duties to manage your digital assets as a fiduciary managing your tangible estate.

Get a Digital Estate Plan

Contact our office for a free consultation on how to include your electronic assets in your digital estate plan.

Oakland County Lawyers



Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment – POLST

POLST is an end-of-life planning approach or outlook that emphasizes a dying or critically ill patient’s preference relative to the type of care they receive. The movement is sweeping the country and is currently under active consideration by the Michigan Legislature.

POLST utilizes a medical order that states the patient’s wishes for treatment. Without the executed order, paramedics and physicians are required to provide all available forms of medical treatment. With the completed form, physicians must follow the patient’s advanced directive.

The POLST form assures patients that their health care providers will provide only those treatments and procedures authorized in advance. The form is designed to reduce irreversible medical errors that often occur in heated moments of acute medical trauma.

Only patients with serious and mostly terminal health conditions should consider executing a POLST order. One rule-of-thumb used to determine whether a POLST order is appropriate is whether the patient is expected to survive for one year or less.

For patients that are healthy, other estate planning tools are available such as an advanced directive, a health care power of attorney, or even a guardianship.

If you or a family member need to review your estate plan, contact our office to schedule a free consultation.

Oakland County Lawyers



Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Because of Drugs

Several websites have cropped-up devoted to grandparents placed in the tough and unenviable position of raising their grandchildren because their own children are incapable of doing so due to drug addiction.

Here is a sample of these websites:

Grandparents raising grandchildren these days often has a heroin addiction component to the story. No longer can we ignore the surge in heroin use among young addicts in the suburbs across the nation.

Between 2000 and 2014, the NYT reports an 8% increase in the number of households where a grandparent is raising their grandchild. There is a high correlation between these 2.6 million households and drug addiction.

Once addicted, all of the good intentions, interventions and other assistance of the families is useless unless the addict truly desires to change. Many of these young parents never make it, either dying or getting incarcerated for escalating crimes, and leaving the grandparents to raise the children.

The mechanism for making the grandparents legally responsible for their grandchildren is a minor guardianship. The downside to such an arrangement is that it is not necessarily designed to be a permanent arrangement; a biological parent in Michigan can petition to terminate the Grandparent guardianship at any time.

While such a petition does not mean a probate judge will automatically grant the relief requested, such petitions tend to disturb the tranquility and security of the child’s world with court hearings and their attendant uncertainty.

If you or a family member are facing a difficult situation involving grandchildren or minor guardianships, give our office a call to review your options in a free consultation.



What is a Funeral Representative?

This post introduces the reader to a funeral representative; a new type of fiduciary recently created by statute.

If you die, who is responsible for making your funeral arrangements and final disposition decisions? Do your loved ones know what your wishes are upon your death, and will those wishes be honored?

Typically, the next-of-kin are responsible for funeral arrangements and the disposition of a decedent’s body. Family members face burial decisions: whether to cremate remains; whether to bury the remains; and how much money to spend.


The law dictates the order of priority for the next-of-kin, beginning with the surviving spouse. Unfortunately, this can be problematic and the decision-making process quickly becomes complicated. For example, the next-of-kin may be an individual who may not agree with the decedent’s plans; or the next-of-kin may be estranged from the decedent.

Often the person closest to the decedent is a more distant relative or not a relative at all, such as a life partner or friendly neighbor, with no legal authority to make any such decisions.

Funeral Representative Law

On March 29, 2016, a probate bill was signed into law to attempt to address this situation. This new law created the “Funeral Representative”.

The new law allows individuals to designate a fiduciary as their Funeral Representative. This fiduciary makes arrangements for the disposition of the decedent’s remains, woks with the funeral home and pays funeral-related invoices.

A designated Funeral Representative will have priority over other persons including a spouse, children, and parents.  The purpose of a Funeral Representative is to help prevent disputes among loved ones and to provide more clarity as to who will be responsible for funeral arrangements and final disposition decisions.

Put it in Writing

A Funeral Representative designation can be an important part of your estate plan. Consider adding a Funeral Representative designation if you think your relatives will disagree or otherwise not carry out your wishes; if you have estranged relatives; if you do not have any living relatives; or if the closest person(s) to you are simply friends or neighbors with no real legal status.

The Funeral Representative designation must be in writing and in proper legal form to be valid.  The nominated fiduciary may accept the designation in writing or by acting as the Funeral Representative.

Give us a Call

To designate a funeral representative, call our firm to schedule a free consultation. It only takes one call to start the probate process.

Oakland County Lawyers