Even the most well-resourced and well-known people can get estate planning wrong.
The recent headlines about the dispute over the validity of Lisa Marie Presley’s Will is just the latest in a long list of stories involving celebrities in the entertainment industry whose last wishes have created a lot of contention amongst their families.
The short version of the story is that Lisa’s mother, Priscilla Presley, is contesting her daughter’s living trust (which is standing in for a Will since Lisa Marie did not file a separate Will).
Specifically, Priscilla Presley is challenging the authenticity of a 2016 amendment made to her daughter’s trust. The amendment removes Priscilla and business manager Barry Siegel from the role of trustee, reassigning that responsibility to Lisa Marie’s two adult children, Riley Keough and Benjamin Keough. (Benjamin died in 2020)
In the court filing, Priscilla calls out at least six issues that raise questions about the validity of the amendment:
- Failure to notify her, as required by the 2010 trust agreement, of the change in trustees;
- The misspelling of Priscilla Presley’s name;
- Irregularities in Lisa Marie’s signature;
- The signature appearing on a blank page;
- Lack of witnesses or notarization; and
- Lack of an original paper copy.
Many legal experts are noting that, based on the allegations in the petition, Priscilla has a very strong case.
However this particular battle turns out, this story is a sobering reminder how important it is to make sure that your legal documents are executed properly.
Based on the missteps in the Presley situation, here are a few tips on how to avoid having your estate documents contested:
1. Review your estate planning documents on a regular basis.
Preparing estate documents is an ongoing responsibility that requires regular updates. Best practice is to review your documents at least once every three to five years. In addition, it’s always a good idea to revisit estate documents after any major life event, including marriage, divorce, birth, and death.
Sadly, far too many people neglect this type of estate planning maintenance. As a result, loved ones are left to discover mistakes and oversights only once it’s too late.
2. Take care when designating trustees, and have a contingency plan.
Choosing trustees is arguably one of the most important decisions you will make in your estate planning. You don’t have to look far to find cases in which trustees abused their power.
Take the heartbreaking story about Stan Lee, comic book legend. The people he trusted most to look out for his best interests took advantage of him in his time of need after his wife died.
There are important things to consider when designating a trustee. In addition to looking for people whom you can trust implicitly, (you can choose a personal trustee such as a family member or friend, or a professional trustee – there are pros and cons to each option), you also need to be aware of just what you’re asking. There are a lot of responsibilities involved in being a trustee; and not everyone is cut out for the job.
Also, think about who you can designate as successor trustees. They will need to step in if your primary trustee is unable or unwilling to fulfill their duties.
In the Presley case, there were two instances in which there should have been successor trustees:
- First, there should have been a successor to step in once business manager Barry Siegel was removed.
- Second, there should have been a successor to take over after Lisa Marie’s son Benjamin passed away.
Because there was no contingency plan in place, there is now a great deal of confusion around who is responsible for what.
3. Pay attention to the details and follow all the rules.
One of the main issues in the Presley situation is the number of missteps made around basic protocols. In estate planning, it’s critical to follow all the rules to, as the saying goes, to the ‘letter of the law.’ Failure to do so can create all kinds of problems, and even put an estate in jeopardy.
In the Presley case, there were clear requirements around notifying existing trustees — Priscilla Presley — of any changes in trustee designations. Failing to notify her was a gross oversight.
And, how exactly are notifications being made? For example, can they be made by email, or does the trust stipulate another delivery method such as certified mail or through a court or attorney communication?
There were a number of details that called the authenticity of the amendment into question. The irregularity of the signature, the fact that the signature was out of context (on a blank page), lack of an original paper copy, and the lack of witnesses or notarization are each reasons enough to call a document’s authenticity into question. All of them together make a very compelling case for Priscilla’s challenge.
Finally, there was the misspelling of Priscilla’s name. While some might call this an honest mistake or a simple typo, it’s highly unlikely that Lisa Marie would have misspelled her own mother’s name. And in the context of all the other issues, the misspelling is just one more indication that something might be wrong.
The moral of the story is that you have to pay attention to every detail, and take every precaution to ensure that you aren’t leaving any loopholes that could provide someone with a plausible reason to question the authenticity of your documents.
Bonus Tip: Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.
While the Presley case is, sadly, an excellent example of many of the most common mistakes people make when preparing and managing estate documents, it does not illustrate every possible thing that can go wrong. In addition to the universal best practices, each estate plan needs to be designed around unique family needs.
The most reliable way to avoid creating a difficult situation like the one the Presley family is dealing with now is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Working with a professional to draft and execute your estate documents will go a very long way toward ensuring that everything is completed according to the law and your wishes. Such a person can also help you stay on top of regular reviews and manage any updates or amendments that you might want or need to make.
If you have questions about your estate planning, we would be more than happy to speak with you. You can reach our team at 860-236-7673 or by dropping us an email. We look forward to helping you.
Estate Planning: Why It’s Not Just About the Money
Beneficiary Designations: Don’t Wait Any Longer
Should You Be a Trustee? (What You Should Know Before You Say Yes)
Estate Planning and Disgruntled Heirs: Ways to Avoid the Fight