How to write a will - and what happens when you die without one

When Aretha Franklin passed away on Aug. 16, she left behind the incredible legacy of her five-decades-long career, which includes over 100 hit songs, piles of Grammys and a long list of accomplishments including performances at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 and the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. She also left behind a whole lot of money.

Amid the obituaries, tributes and playlists celebrating Franklin’s career these last few weeks came some surprising news: She didn’t have a will. Fans could only wonder: Does that mean the intricacies of her finances — and the houses and clothes and songs — as well as the relationships between her nieces and managers and friends, were about to get super public?

Without a will, a deceased person’s loved ones are left to wonder about their intentions, their emotions and their connections. “Even more than the legal aspects, having a will is an act of love for the people you leave behind,” Chas Rampenthal, general counsel at LegalZoom, said in an email interview. “Setting out your wishes in a will or trust means that nobody is left guessing. You can tell them what to do with your property. You can demonstrate your preference for the care of your minor children. You can even stop or limit fighting about mementos or keepsakes.” Without a will, one’s friends and family, already in mourning, might be left hurt or surprised — or might be compelled to upset each other for years to come.

What happens if someone dies without a will? There’s actually not a big difference between the average Joe and Aretha Franklin, Regina Kiperman, an estate-planning lawyer in Brooklyn, New York, said in a phone interview. “Every state in the U.S. has a set of rules for intestacy — to die without a will,” she said.

Generally the default line of distribution depends on your legal status: If you’re married, assets go to your spouse. If you’re married with children, a certain percentage (dependent on the state) goes to your spouse, and the rest to your children. If you’re single with children, everything goes to your children. If you’re single with no children, then to your parents. If you have no spouse, no children, no parents, then to your assets go to your siblings. And onward. Franklin was not married but had four sons, so presumably, her assets will be divided among them, said Kiperman.

Of course, it may not be so seamless. “If you have very extensive business dealings and/or a large family, and there is a lot of money that the court has to distribute, then it is going to be a huge mess,” Bradley R. Bailyn, founder of Bailyn Law, said in an email interview. “It’s not a function of being a celebrity, it’s a function of how big of a pot of money you’re throwing up in their air and how many people are standing around waiting to grab as much money as possible.”

There are three aspects of celebrity life (or most any really wealthy person’s life) that make their estates so complicated to divide up, said our experts: taxes, trusts and the fact that their work might generate income for years to come. In Franklin’s case, that’s her extensive song catalog.

“There are immediate issues that probably need to be addressed in her situation, and those are probably music rights. There’s going to be discussions of music rights, royalties and images,” Kiperman said. “If you think about Prince’s estate, there was a lot of fighting, and I think there were some issues with Universal, with Warner Brothers, and the music rights and royalties.” (Indeed, last year a judge overseeing the Prince estate ordered an investigation when Universal Music Group rescinded a deal over the singer’s vault of songs; Prince’s family has giant plans for his name, including previously unreleased songs, clothes in his name and even a hotel).

As for trusts, “there is a very popular way of transferring assets on death without the court getting involved known as a living trust. Upper middle class and wealthy people often use living trusts to automatically distribute their assets upon their death,” Bailyn said. “[R]ather than needing the court to oversee the process and having the whole thing be a public record and possibly a long and costly legal proceeding, a living trust allows for all asset transfers to be done privately and without any court involvement.”

Transferring assets to a trust can also cut down on estate taxes, a concern for descendants when giant amounts of money are bestowed. “Of course, wealthier people can also take steps to ensure that they are not paying too much to the taxman,” Rampenthal said. “Most of us never need to be concerned with that!”

It remains to be seen if the Franklin estate will get messy at all, but if you’re feeling inspired by the potential headache, there’s no time like the present to write a will of your own. At what age or life stage should a person draw one up? “You should make a will as soon as you have any assets which exceed your debts,” Bailyn said.

“Whether you are 18, 118 or anywhere in between, you should do yourself and your loved ones a favor and put your wishes in writing — in a legally valid estate plan,” Rampenthal said. “If you are not sure if a will or trust are right for you, then do some simple research, or talk to an attorney that specializes in estate planning.” If hiring a lawyer feels too real (or expensive), you can do the bare minimum and explain your wishes on paper in front of two witnesses. Leaving a will shows respect — pun intended — for your friends and family, and will give you some peace of mind.