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Robert Mansour: Lessons we can learn from Michael Jackson

It’s The Law

Posted: October 22, 2009 9:43 p.m.
Updated: October 23, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
For a fellow that many considered quite strange, Michael Jackson really got some things right when it came to planning for his estate.

Here are five major lessons Michael Jackson leaves behind:

n Lesson 1: Get your legal documents in order. Jackson had his legal documents in order. Around 66 percent of Americans have absolutely no plan whatsoever. As a result, much of his affairs will likely remain private and his wishes will likely be followed. Some of the most savvy business people out there don’t take the time to protect themselves or their families. That is why the probate courts are so backlogged with cases. Also, leaving your family with no direction whatsoever can often lead to arguments and battles within families.

n Lesson 2: Be specific about who inherits from you. Jackson avoided misunderstandings by naming each of his children and specifically excluding Debbie Rowe, the mother of his two older children, from any inheritance.
While that may not have been necessary because the couple were no longer married, it makes clear that Jackson purposely omitted her, rather than simply forgetting her.

Keep in mind that Anna Nicole Smith’s documents did not mention her daughter which led to a great deal of argument in the courts.
Jackson’s living trust apparently gives some of his estate to his children, some to his mother and some to charity. Without any plan whatsoever, your estate can easily end up in the wrong hands. Some experts call it “unintentional disinheritance.” That is not to say that any estate plan is foolproof, but having a plan is generally far better than leaving everything to chance.

n Lesson 3: A living trust can be helpful. Jackson had a living trust. While assets in a trust avoid the court-involvement of probate, a trust also provides for family privacy. As such a public figure, he probably wanted to keep things as private as possible. Of course, air-tight privacy probably won’t be possible for Jackson because of the media scrutiny, but we will likely never know all the details because a trust is private. For most people, media scrutiny is not likely to be a factor. His children will also be cared for and their money will likely be managed properly. By having a solid trust, his wishes are much more likely to be followed.

n Lesson 4: Name guardians for your kids. In writing his will, Jackson named guardians for his children. Without doing so, the court would have made the choice about who would raise the kids. Absent any nominations, anyone can get in line for that job. Jackson selected his mother as primary guardian and singer Diana Ross, his longtime mentor, as backup nominee. Although the court has to agree, most judges abide by a parent’s wishes unless there is a compelling reason to ignore them. Jackson made his wishes known, which beats being silent on the issue.

n Lesson 5: Choose the right people. Some may argue whether Jackson had much business acumen. However, in what appears to have been a smart move, Jackson named attorney John Branca and business executive John McClain as co-executors of his will and co-trustees of the family trust. Katherine Jackson (who reportedly filed for bankruptcy years ago) challenged this appointment, but Branca and McClain were awarded control of the estate. Again, judges usually enforce someone’s choice unless there is a compelling reason to ignore their wishes.

Also, to some extent, choosing outsiders was a wise move to prevent arguments among family members.  

Whether you think Jackson was a genius, an eccentric individual or as bizarre as they come, he got one thing right — an apparently solid estate plan that, for the time being, seems to be working for him and his family.

On Saturday, I will be giving a free seminar on estate planning. Other experts will be presenting as well. If you are interested in attending, please contact my office at (661) 414-7100.

Robert Mansour is an attorney in Valencia. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “It’s The Law” appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association. Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.

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