Estate Planning Lessons from Etta James

Classic female crooner Etta James left the world an indelible collection of timeless musical standards. Beyond her music, estate planning attorneys have explained that since her passing earlier this year, Ms. James has also left the world a wealth of estate planning lessons regarding both the good and bad ways to conduct these financial, legal, and medical preparations. In fact, The Discovery Channel is set to shoot an episode of a series it runs called “The Will” on the lessons to be learned from the Etta James estate case.

Like in so many families, feuding began in Ms. James’ case even before she passed away. Ms. James son, Donto James, and her husband, Artis Mills, began fighting in court over control of the ailing singer’s care last year. Spouses and step-children often engage in these disagreements.

Previous planning efforts by Ms. James named her husband as the one in charge of her personal care and health care. However, interestingly, end of life care was supposed to be made jointly by her husband and two sons. This is a unique approach that, while good-intentioned, is rife with potential complications. As our New York estate planning attorneys would have explained, without a “tie-breaking” mechanism to settle disagreements about such life-ending care, these sorts of split decisions leave the door to in-fighting wide open. Of course it is always hoped that these sorts of situations can be resolved amicably. But the entire purpose of planning for these affairs is to anticipate potential issues and plan for them to avoid fighting, stalling, and legal complications. Clear planning should provide fair, logical, and streamlined decision-making.

On the financial front, Ms. James’ son argued that his mother created a trust in 2008. However, her husband challenged the trust, claiming that Ms. James was not competent at the time that she signed the documents involved. To avoid this possibility, it is always important to obtain proof of competency when creating these plans to nip this sort of challenge before it is even raised. This can be accomplished by having a psychiatric evaluation if necessary. In addition, when conversations are kept between an estate planning lawyer and a client, the charge of undue influence by a third-party is less potent.

However, even if it was conclusively shown that Ms. James was competent when she created the trust, there was another glaring problem–the trust wasn’t funded. No matter how well-developed a trust might be, if assets are not transferred into it, than the legal tool serves little purpose. Failing to fund a trust is a common problem for many families. It is vital to be diligent about the trust creation process to ensure it is fully completed so that it functions as intended when necessary.

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