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Lessons Can Be Learned from Michael Jackson’s Estate Plan

Published July 23, 2009

A lot media attention has been paid to the drama and speculation surrounding Michael Jackson’s estate. After the dust began to settle, however,and the facts about Jackson’s estate emerged, it became apparent that he had, in fact, created a solid estate plan. Several lessons can be learned from Jackson’s estate planning.

The first critical thing that Michael Jackson did was draft a Last Will and Testament (a “Will”). Everyone, especially people with young children, as was the case with Jackson, should have a Will. Although a Will is a basic element of any estate plan, approximately two-thirds of Americans neglect this task. Had Jackson not drafted a Will, a judge, in accordance with California law, would have divided his estate. Since Jackson had a Will, his estate will be distributed according to his wishes: with reportedly 40 percent of going to his children, 40 percent to his mother, and 20 percent to charity.

Not only did Jackson have a Will, he drafted it using very clear, specific language and he appointed professional co-executors: lawyer John Branca, and business executive John McClain. He explicitly referred to his children by name as beneficiaries, and excluded his ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, leaving no doubt as to his intentions. When drafting a Will, it is always safer to be as specific and unambiguous as possible so that there is no chance of a judge or executor misinterpreting your wishes.

In addition to creating a Will, Jackson placed his assets in a living trust, also known as a revocable trust. Much media energy has been expended discussing Jackson’s lavish spending and accumulated debt. Although he did acquire a good deal of debt during his lifetime, at his death, his assets still exceeded his debt by approximately $200 million. By placing those assets in the Michael Jackson Family Trust, Jackson’s executors and beneficiaries will be able to avoid probate, thereby keeping his affairs out of the courts and, ideally, out of the public eye.

Keeping an estate out of probate court through the use of a revocable trust has benefits in terms of privacy, expedience, and cost. The probate process can be both long and expensive, drawing out asset distribution over months, or in some cases, years. At his death, control over Jackson’s assets was automatically transferred to his co-trustees, John Branca and John McClain. Although Jackson’s mother moved quickly to gain control of the family trust, she was unable to do so because Jackson had already named these co-trustees. Branca and McClain will distribute Jackson’s assets in accordance with Jackson’s wishes, protecting his family from invasive court proceedings.

In his estate plan, Jackson also named a guardian, Katherine Jackson, and a successor guardian, Diana Ross, for his children, all of whom are minors. If no guardian had been named, the courts would have appointed one – likely the two older children’s biological mother, Debbie Rowe. Rowe, who had relinquished her parental rights years ago, has petitioned to have her rights reinstated. The courts have yet to make a decision on this issue, but they generally side with the parent’s wishes absent a compelling reason not to.

By naming guardians, Jackson also split the responsibilities of managing his estate and caring for his family. It is a good idea to separate duties in this way if possible. Each responsibility involves unique challenges that may be handled better by a team of diverse individuals.

Some experts have indicated that Jackson could have made a better choice of guardians, given the ages of his children. Katherine Jackson is 79 years old and will be 90 years old by the time his youngest son turns 18 years old. Diana Ross is 65 years old. It is a good idea to consider age when appointing a guardian. Young children take a lot of time and energy. Also, should a guardian or successor guardian die while the children are still minors, courts will have to become involved in appointing a caregiver.

While it appeared in the moments immediately following his death that the fate of Jackson’s estate was in question, such speculation has not been borne out. At this point, according to estate planning professionals, it appears that Jackson received solid legal advice during his lifetime, and as a result, has a well-crafted estate plan in place.

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