Tom Petty Estate Brawl Illustrates Importance of Good PlanningSubmitted by Bernhardt Wealth Management on July 29th, 2019
When Hall of Fame rocker Tom Petty died in October 2017, one week after finishing a highly successful tour, he left an estate worth multiple millions. Not only that, but he actually did what we routinely urge clients to do: he had a will that indicated his wishes for the disposition of his assets and—especially important in his case—his musical and creative legacy. So, it would seem that for once, at least, a celebrity did things right.
But not so fast. Even though Petty took the all-important step of drafting a will and keeping it updated, the document contained some ambiguous wording about precisely who should make the decisions and what amount of control those persons should have in the process. And now the multimillion-dollar estate is tangled in an expensive and very public battle for control between Petty’s widow and his two daughters from a previous marriage.
The problem lies in a provision of the will that allocates the decision making about the estate to Dana York Petty, his widow, and Adria Petty and Annakim Violette, his daughters, “in equal participation.” The daughters are claiming in court that their stepmother is not giving them enough control over what happens to their deceased father’s musical estate and his ongoing business interests; they’re asking for $5 million in damages, plus attorney’s fees.
Here we have yet another example of how important it is that estate documents be worded as precisely as possible, with the least amount of room for interpretation. Even in families where everyone gets along before the death of a grantor, problems of interpretation can arise after death, especially when large sums of money are involved. It’s a sad but true fact of human nature that most people want all they can get, and if the documents are worded in a way that creates a perceived opening, someone will hire an attorney to make the opening wider.
This is especially true with blended families, where multiple marriages are involved. Imprecise wording, combined with sizeable estates, are ingredients for an almost-certain clash of parties when the estate is being settled. Other notable and recent examples include deceased stars Aretha Franklin—who left multiple, handwritten wills—Prince—who left no will at all—and James Brown, who left children from multiple marriages in addition to several illegitimate children, practically guaranteeing the family feud that followed his passing.
The antidote, of course, is a carefully drafted will or trust that is kept updated on a regular basis. Family circumstances change: children get married; grandchildren are born; children and grandchildren get divorced; businesses are bought and sold; and on it goes. No document stays current without consistent review, and all estate planning documents require periodic re-reading to make sure that the language governing the disposition of the estate contains as little ambiguity as possible.
If you’d like assistance with reviewing your estate plan, or if you just have some questions about similar topics, please let us know. We would enjoy the opportunity to help you find the answers that are right for your situation.