Celebrity wills - what can we learn from their mistakes?

The five things we can all learn from the mistakes celebrities made in their wills

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You can understand why celebrities might think they are going to live forever. None of us like to think that one day all this is going to come to an end, and if 'all this' includes fame and fortune, it has to be even harder. However, as some celebrities have shown, unless we get to grips with our demise, and make plans for it, our loved ones could be left with a real headache.

Jill Dando

One high profile example of this was the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando in 1999. Amidst the shock of her death, it emerged that she had no will, and despite the fact she was due to get married later that year, her partner would not inherit any of her £1.18 million estate.

Instead it passed to her father (who was in his 80s). The logic of who was part of her life held no sway, because when you die without a will, your family cannot divide your estate between them as they think you would have wanted: they have to follow the rules of intestacy.

In England and Wales, under these rules, if you are married or in a civil partnership (and you have children), your spouse will inherit the first £250,000 of your estate. If you are not married, and just living together, your partner will get nothing.

After that, your spouse will receive half of the rest, and the other half is divided between your children (including legally adopted children): step children are not entitled to anything. If one of your children has died, their share will pass to their children. Children under the age of 18 will still inherit, but will not receive the money until they are 18.

If you have no children, your spouse will inherit all of your estate (under a new version of the rules that was introduced in October last year). If you have no spouse or children, your parents will inherit, and if they have died, then it will pass to your brothers and sisters (or their children if they are no longer around).

Rik Mayall

Emma Myers, a lawyer with Saga legal services, highlights the tragic death of comedian Rik Mayall as another time when a celebrity died without making a will. He died at the age of 56 last year, and perhaps because he was so young, he died before he had a chance to make a will.

This meant his wife received the first £250,000 from his estate, and a portion would automatically pass to his children. This may not have been exactly what he wanted, especially as it triggered a large inheritance tax bill on his £1.2 million estate.

Myers explains: "The key point to take away from this is that it is absolutely vital to have a will – it's the only way you can exercise control over who gets what, and how much. From an inheritance tax point of view, bear in mind that surviving spouses can inherit tax-free, although if their estate is still over the threshold when they die, tax would still need to be paid."

Princess Diana

Even royalty get these things wrong sometimes. During the trial of her former butler, Paul Burrell, in 2003, it emerged that Diana had written a letter of wishes requesting that her estate be divided differently than specified in her will. The letter requested that her 17 godchildren would get a portion of her estate too.

She had written the letter just after her will in 1993 - and stated that she wanted her sons to receive three quarters of her personal chattels, and her godchildren the other quarter. This became more complicated, because the letter was written before her divorce, when her personal belongings were relatively small because so much belonged to the royals. After her divorce, the value of her personal estate rocketed, but she never updated the letter.

When she died, her mother and sister decided that it was no longer appropriate to divide her estate this way, and they ignored the letter. There was an outcry at the time, but legally they had no responsibility to carry out requests in a letter of wishes. Myers says this is an important reminder that a letter of wishes is not a legally-binding document and anything in it can be disregarded by the executors.

She adds: "If you have any bequests of a financial nature, ensure you include them in your will. Unlike a will which is made public upon death for all to see, a letter of wishes is a private document intended solely for the executors. A letter of wishes is, however, useful for making requests that cannot be legally enforced and for things like funeral arrangements."

Franz Kafka

The final famous name is perhaps not a celebrity as such, but is worth highlighting because it reveals another potential headache. When he died. Kafka ordered his friend and executor Max Brod to burn his life's work. This included unseen manuscripts that went on to become classics, such as The Trial and The Castle, as well an invaluable trove of personal letters and short stories.

Brod ignored the request and published the manuscripts, prompting a legal battle over ownership of the papers that ran for decades. The inherent value in objects Kafka had believed were without any value, caused major problems over the years.

Myers says: "Kafka's case shows how things which you might not expect can appreciate in value after you're gone, so it's worth being specific in your will to ensure disagreements don't ensue after you're gone. You may not have a ground-breaking literary classic tucked away at home, but items such as jewellery and furniture might just be more valuable than you think. Avoid this issue by regularly valuing any items that might be worth a secret-fortune and updating your will accordingly."

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