It’s always a big story when top celebrities die. When they leave the scene without preparing for the proper distribution of their assets, they continue to generate embarrassing headlines as their heirs fight over money and property.
You may never make the front page, but if you’ve built up significant wealth through a family business or professional practice you need to leave an orderly estate. Connecticut residents in particular need to make sure their financial planning includes estate planning, since we live in one of the few states that impose a state estate tax with a far lower exemption than the federal rate.
Only 14 states and Washington, D.C., levy an estate tax separate from the federal estate tax. The national “death tax” is a whopping 40 percent, but it only applies to assets above the federal exemption of $5.49 million (for 2017). The state of Connecticut begins imposing its estate tax on assets exceeding $2 million. On the positive side, the state tax starts at just 7.2 percent and rises through a series of levels to a maximum of 12 percent on assets above $10.1 million.
You would think that people who become mega-celebrities and accumulate immense wealth would make sure to include estate planning in their personal finance plan, since they can easily afford to engage financial advisers. The fact that many fail to do so indicates how common it is for high net worth individuals to neglect estate planning.
The musician Prince provides a recent example. After he died in April 2016 at the age of 57, newspapers reported that he didn’t prepare a will. For someone with six brothers and sisters and an estimated net worth of $300 million, that’s a shocking omission. A judge will decide how to distribute the estate assets.
Actor Heath Ledger, who died unexpectedly in 2008 at age 28, did leave a will, but he failed to update the will after his daughter was born in 2005. Newspapers reported on confusion over heirs and possible legal battles. In the end, Ledger’s family gifted the entire estate to his daughter, but only after the family drama played out in the press.
You would think that Warren Burger, former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, would know how to take care of legal obligations, but when he died in 1995 he left behind a one-page will that he typed himself. Newspapers reported that the document was poorly worded and left his family vulnerable to paying $450,000 in estate taxes and court fees that would not have been imposed had he hired an adviser to create a trust.
Estate planning is a complex and highly nuanced financial planning practice. Individuals and families that have compiled a high net worth should hire a qualified attorney and have the assistance of a Certified Financial Planner and CPA when dealing with larger estates. Having the perspective of all team members can lead to better outcomes for you and your family. Going it alone may not mean you wind up on the gossip pages, but it could cause significant distress and unnecessary expense for your heirs.