San Diego

Aretha Franklin's Passing a Reminder to Have Estate Plan Ready

The lack of clear, binding instructions can cause lasting conflict and emotional pain and strife among surviving family members, heirs and friends, experts said

Aretha Franklin leaves behind wonderful memories for friends and fans around the world.

But her death also left a potentially divisive and expensive legal problem for her family.

That's because the “Queen of Soul” reportedly died without a will, trust or other legal documents that would spell out, with the power of law, who should inherit her valuable estate.

Franklin is not the first superstar to die without leaving clear directions for the proper distribution of their assets.

"The consequence will be that the court will ultimately decide who receives (Franklin’s) property, in a process that is expensive, time-consuming and public,” said D. Robert Dieringer, an estate and trusts lawyer in San Diego.

Dieringer said the lack of clear, binding instructions can cause lasting conflict and emotional pain and strife among surviving family members, heirs and friends.

Dieringer said those problems are avoidable, regardless of your wealth, if you make your wishes known and prepare the proper legal documents before you die.

But Dieringer said about 60 percent of Americans ignore that advice because most don’t like to think about death or serious illness and avoid planning for it.

He said his father had a similar experience, when he had an unexpected heart attack on the ski slopes, at age 51. Dieringer’s father survived, and his entire family learned a lesson.

“Just like Aretha Franklin probably didn't anticipate that she'd have some health problems, neither had my dad, so people should address these issues sooner than later, before the unexpected comes," he said.

Franklin isn’t the only super-star to die “intestate,” as it’s known in legal jargon. "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" also died without a will or estate plan, leaving a legal mess for his survivors.

Proper planning is important, no matter what your income.

Attorney Dieringer says California residents who own real estate worth more than $50,000 — or who have other personal property and assets of more than $150,000 — will be subject court-supervised probate if they don’t have the proper trust documents on file.

He said the cost of expert legal advice and document preparation is about $2500 to $3000.

For those who balk at the cost, Dieringer says it’s a good investment that will save money and headaches for your loved ones should you die or become incapacitated by accident or illness.

“The amount that you’ll pay for an estate plan at the outset will certainly be less than the amount of money you’ll pay in court fees upon your passing,” Dieringer said.

The San Diego County Bar Association has a list of certified legal experts in estate and trust law, who can review your situation and offer the appropriate legal services.

Dieringer also said it’s very important to give someone you trust the legal authority to carry out your wishes for health care and end-of-life decisions if you have an accident or medical crisis.

Those documents establish a “power of attorney” for health care and financial decisions.

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