Everyone was shocked when actress Brittany Murphy died suddenly at age 32 on December 20th, 2009. She left behind a husband, Simon Monjack, of two and a half years and a mother with whom she was very close. Reportedly, her mother lived with Murphy and her husband the last few years.
Only one day after her tragic passing, celebrity gossip website TMZ posted an article saying that Murphy had a will, but one that was created before her marriage. The report stated the will left everything to her mother and nothing to her husband.
It also stated Brittany’s house was held in a trust which also left it to her mother, not her husband. Another website said the house — which Murphy had purchased from Britney Spears in 2003 for almost four million dollars — was held in a trust called the “Nina Bow Trust”.
At this point, it’s too early to tell if the reports are accurate. Wills are public records and are available to the media and websites alike, but only once they are filed. That doesn’t happen one day after someone passes away.
Also, when people do the proper estate planning, and hold their assets in trusts, there is no need for a will to be filed. Rather, the trust controls what happens with the person’s property, privately and out of court.
But, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the TMZ report is accurate. Many young people with money — including celebrities like Heath Ledger — fail to update their will, trust and other estate planning documents after important life events. As discussed in the book, Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, Ledger failed to revise his will after his daughter was born, for example.
So Murphy’s reported failure to update her will and trust would not be unusual. Of course, maybe there was no failure at all — maybe she didn’t want to update them and include her husband.
Either way, Murphy’s true wishes might not be followed. Most states have “pretermitted heir” laws that allow spouses and children who come along after a will was created to still share in the estate. But, the amount varies from state to state, and the conditions vary as well. For example, in some states the law applies both to wills and trusts, but in others the law applies only to wills.
In Murphy’s home state of California, which is a “community property” state, the law allows spouses such as Monjack to share in about one-half of the estate, when they became married after the will or trust was created. But, the law has exceptions when there is an agreement to the contrary (such as a prenuptial agreement), or if will or trust has language saying that the creator intentionally didn’t include a spouse, along with other exceptions.
So, we’ll have to wait and see if Monjack will share in any of Brittany Murphy’s assets despite these reports that her will and trust don’t include him. And, of course, this uncertainly may very well lead to probate proceedings that cost lots of money.
Which is why this story should serve as a lesson for everyone. Don’t wait to take care of your estate planning until you’re retired! If you have assets or children, you need to have at least a will, and probably a trust as well. Yes, even if you’re only 32 years old! And always be sure to update your documents after major life events such as a marriage, divorce, or birth of a child.
You certainly don’t want to leave your legacy up to the laws of your state. You owe it to your family to do the proper planning and make sure your wishes are followed.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at blog @ trialandheirs.com.