10 Apr 2012

Why do we know the intimate details of Whitney Houston’s estate?

I, like everyone else, was surprised and sad to hear that singer Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012, at the age of 48.  Whitney was not married at the time of her death and was survived by her only child, daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, age 19.  Naturally, as a celebrity, people are interested in the details of Whitney’s death, the terms of her estate and the identities of the beneficiaries of her estate.

Since her death, I have learned a plethora of information about Whitney’s estate all through a simple Google search on the computer.  I have seen a portion of Whitney’s Will and the First Codicil to her Will on the website www.insideedition.com.  I have read that Whitney’s daughter is the sole beneficiary of her estate and will receive her inheritance through a trust created under Whitney’s Will.  I have also read that Whitney’s sister-in-law, Pat Houston, who served as her manager, has been appointed by the probate court to serve as the administrator of Whitney’s estate. I expect that the specific details of Whitney’s financial situation, as it existed on her date of death, will soon be posted on-line, to satisfy the public’s curiosity.

Why do we have access to all of these personal details about Whitney’s testamentary documents, her sole beneficiary and her assets? It’s not because some nefarious insider is leaking Whitney’s personal secrets to the world.  Surprisingly, it’s because Whitney had a Will based estate plan and she intentionally arranged to make the information about her estate a matter of public record.

When a person dies (the “decedent”) with a Will based estate plan, his or her Will, as amended by any codicils to the Will, is the primary document defining: who is in charge of his or her assets, who are the beneficiaries of those assets, and how the assets will be distributed to the beneficiaries.  The Will becomes operative once it is validated by the probate court.  In a probate court proceeding, generally all documents filed with the probate court, including the decedent’s Will and asset information, become a matter of public record.  Any Tom, Dick or Harry can go to the probate court and purchase copies of the documents in the decedent’s probate court file, including a copy of the decedent’s Will.  All of the information that I learned on-line about Whitney’s estate originated from her public probate court file.

Most persons, especially celebrities, do not want to share this personal testamentary information with the public.  How could Whitney have avoided a public display of her estate?  Whitney’s estate information could have remained private if she had a trust based estate plan instead of a Will based estate plan.  In a trust based estate plan, a revocable living trust is the primary estate planning document.  The revocable living trust, like a Will, contains instructions on how a person’s assets will  be managed and distributed after his or her death.  However, unlike a Will, there is no need for probate court involvement to validate the revocable living trust upon the decedent’s death.   The terms of the revocable living trust will remain private and all of a person’s assets held in the name of the revocable living trust will not be subject to a probate court proceeding.  It makes you wonder why Whitney chose a Will based estate plan over a trust based estate plan.

If you would like to discuss this or other trusts and estates issues, please contact the attorneys at Drucker Law Offices, 468 North Camden Drive, 2nd Floor, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, 310.285.5375 Tel, 310.444.9754 Fax, www.druckerlaw.com

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