Whitney Houston’s funeral this weekend provided the first public glimpse of what may be trouble involving her estate. Her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, was invited to the funeral, after reports surfaced that some family members didn’t want him there. He didn’t last long. Brown’s entourage wasn’t allowed to sit with him at the funeral. Brown wasn’t happy and left, visibly upset.
Bobby Brown issued a statement after the funeral, saying he and his group were asked to relocate three times and, rather than making a scene, he chose to pay his respects quickly and leave.
TMZ reported the day before the funeral that Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, and other family members had been trying to keep Brown away from Bobbi Kristina, Whitney’s daughter with Brown. They were said to be worried that Brown would try to use Bobbi Kristina to make a play for some of Whitney’s money.
Brown’s statement confirmed some of this. He said that security prevented him from seeing his daughter at the funeral. Is money the reason why? Brown tried to get some of Whitney’s money through a court proceeding in 2007, just after their divorce judgment was entered, but he failed.
Some have speculated that Whitney’s estate will be worth between $10 and $20 million, or more. At this point, that’s pure speculation. As we wrote a few weeks ago, Whitney’s camp previously denied rumors that she was broke.
Certainly, between the royalties from increased record sales, and with prudent marketing of her name and image, her estate can bring in millions. But, because Whitney Houston only sang songs, instead of writing or producing them like Michael Jackson did, her estate won’t have the same earning potential.
Here’s an ABC News article that discusses her estate’s earning potential in more depth. The article quotes an unnamed source familiar with the situation who indicated that Whitney did have a will and that the estate process has been started. At this point, we don’t know how much estate planning she had in place. But, certainly, we can expect there will be millions of dollars at stake.
We hope that Whitney Houston’s estate planning included more than just a simple will. For the large majority of people with even a modest amount of assets, a will is not enough. Whitney Houston’s passing provides a perfect illustration of why this is true.
With a basic will alone, Whitney’s beneficiaries would generally receive their inheritances outright. Everyone expects that Whitney left most — and perhaps all — of her assets to her daughter Bobbi Kristina. Because Bobbi Kristina is 18, she would be entitled to receive everything at once under a simple will.
How many 18-year-olds do you know who are responsible enough to handle a large sum of money? Not many. And, again according to TMZ, there may be more concerns about Bobbi Kristina’s responsibility. Reportedly, family members want her to undergo drug rehab right away, because she has been struggling with substance abuse issues for years— much like her mother did.
If this is true, and if Bobbi Kristina is a beneficiary under a simple will, then this report raises a big concern. If she is controlled by drug abuse, Bobbi Kristina might not be competent to handle the money. If that’s the case, then family members could go to court, try to have her declared legally incompetent to manage her finances, and seek a conservatorship over her.
Who would have standing to do this? Bobby Brown for one. It could be the legal avenue he may try to use to seek control of the money, which is what Whitney’s mother and other family members are reportedly afraid of.
Think this won’t happen? Look at the Britney Spears case. Her father filed for conservatorship over her in 2008 due to her out-of-control behavior caused by substance abuse, and she is still subject to it, even though she’s turned her life around and is engaged to be married. As we’ve written before, in Britney’s case, that process may have actually saved her life, but that did come at a cost to Britney’s personal freedom in many respects. You can read more about that case here.
Will Bobby Brown try something similar? He could. At least, if Whitney Houston only had a basic will.
If Whitney Houston did the right estate planning, by using a trust, this result could be avoided. Unlike a will which passes through probate court, a trust is handled privately, outside of court, when used properly.
Trusts normally have provisions to spell out what each beneficiary would inherit, and when and how. Usually, young adults don’t receive money under a trust, until they reach a certain age. Often trusts spell out that the beneficiaries’ money is to be managed by a trustee and used for their benefit, for things like education, health and living expenses, but not given directly to them to control and spend.
In fact, trusts can be even more creative, such as those with drug and alcohol language that requires beneficiaries to be “clean” before they receive their money.
Did Whitney properly protect Bobbi Kristina with a trust? Is there an opening for Bobby Brown to cause trouble? We will likely find out in the weeks to come. Certainly, there are enough reports, justified by what happened at the funeral over the weekend, to create serious cause for concern.
It’s a lesson for everyone. No one knows when tragedy may strike. For most people, having a simple will is not enough. A properly-funded trust, with detailed distribution provisions specifically tailored for your beneficiaries, based on your client's wishes, is the best way for your clients to protect their loved ones after you pass.
Too many people — the rich and famous, and not-so-rich-or-famous alike — fail to do the proper estate planning, and it’s the family members left behind who pay the price.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.
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