Actor Anne Heche made recent headlines with a dramatic car crash into a house that resulted in her death after several days in a hospital on life support. Tragically, she left behind two sons, aged 20 and 13. The extent of her estate at the time of her death is not known, but it appears that, like about two thirds of Americans, she did not have an estate plan. Unfortunately, that oversight is likely to make the days and weeks ahead even more complicated for her grieving family.
Heche’s elder son, Homer Heche Laffoon, filed a petition asking the Los Angeles Superior Court to make him the administrator of his mother’s estate. The administrator of an estate is sometimes referred to as the personal representative of the estate. A personal representative’s duties are extensive, and include gathering, inventorying, and valuing all estate assets; notifying all creditors of the death and paying legitimate debts of the estate; filing tax returns and paying income and other taxes for the estate; and distributing estate assets before closing the estate.
Serving as the personal representative of an estate can be overwhelming even for individuals who are much older than Homer Laffoon, and with estates that are much smaller than his mother’s is likely to be. In addition to petitioning the court to be in charge of Heche’s estate, her son also asked the court to appoint a third party as guardian ad litem (GAL) for his half-brother Atlas. Since Atlas is a legal minor, the GAL can represent his interests in the probate matter.
To the extent that there is any good news in this situation, it is that it seems unlikely there will be a battle over Ms. Heche’s estate; her heirs under the California law of intestate succession are her two sons, who will divide her estate evenly. Unfortunately, the fact that their mother did not have a will or estate plan means that probate of the estate will still be more problematic than it should have been.
Challenges of Administering an Estate With No Will
Estate planning doesn’t guarantee that administering an estate will be easy, but it usually makes estate matters easier than they otherwise would have been. For instance, had Anne Heche had a will, it could have resolved several issues.
First, most people name a personal representative or executor of their estate in their will. That person does not automatically have the power to control the estate; they must be appointed by the court. It’s possible that Ms. Heche would have chosen someone older than or with more legal or financial experience to manage her estate.
People with minor children should also name a legal guardian for them in the will (a legal guardian acts in a parental role and is different from a GAL). In this case, Ms. Heche’s son Atlas Tupper will be cared for by his father. However, if he did not have a surviving parent, the court would have had to appoint a legal guardian for him. Without direction from the deceased parent’s will, the court might have appointed a guardian other than someone his mother would have chosen.
Clearly, a will could have greatly simplified matters for Anne Heche’s family in their time of loss. But often, a will is not sufficient. For example, if property is left to a legal adult in a will, even if that adult is barely more than eighteen, they are entitled to receive all of that property at once. In this case, Heche’s son Homer will likely inherit millions of dollars. Hopefully, he is mature enough to get the guidance of people who can help him handle his new wealth responsibly. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a young adult goes in the opposite direction and wastes their inheritance or gets taken advantage of by unscrupulous people.
There are problems leaving assets to legal minors like Atlas Tupper in a will, too. Since minors are not legally able to own property, an adult would need to be appointed by the court to manage the assets until the minor comes of age at eighteen. At that point, they would be entitled to receive their entire inheritance, whether or not they were equipped to manage it.
Had Anne Heche had a trust, she could have chosen a trustee to manage her wealth, and distribute trust income and assets to her sons as she directed. Having their inheritance in a trust could have protected trust assets from creditors, grifters, and the child’s own worst impulses. At a point that Heche deemed appropriate in the trust document, such as when they reached a certain age, her sons could have assumed control of their inheritance.
Unfortunately, since Heche had neither a will nor a trust, her assets will be distributed according to California’s intestacy law, which applies when someone dies without an estate plan.
Takeaways from the Anne Heche Estate
What does Anne Heche’s estate have to teach people who are not rich and famous? Plenty. First and foremost, don’t assume that you are too young or healthy to need an estate plan. Anne Heche was only 53 years old, and accidents can happen to anyone.
Second, don’t imagine that just because you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t need an estate plan. If you have children who are minors or young adults, you need to plan for their protection—both personal and financial. And even if you don’t have children, you need to plan for the possibility of your own legal incapacity. Like an accident, that can happen unexpectedly.
Third, estate planning makes life easier both for you and your loved ones. It gives you peace of mind that the people you choose will be managing your estate and helping your children. And it helps your family when they are grieving your loss; your estate plan helps them to be confident that they understand your wishes and are carrying them out properly.
To learn more about estate planning, estate administration, and avoiding the trouble that comes with dying without a will, contact Estate Planning & Elder Law Services to schedule a consultation.