This week we seem to have hit a theme of learning lessons from the famous. Maybe it is not too surprising, but the wealthy and famous are not immune from making the most naive estate planning mistakes. In my last two posts though, I may have missed possibly the most topical, valuable and mistake-ridden of all estate plans; that of Stieg Larsson.
It is fair to say that up to the point when Mr Larsson died, most of us hadn’t heard of him.
Mistake number 1 – never make assumptions regarding how much you are worth. When he died, Stieg Larsson left three completed, but unpublished manuscripts that he had written purely for his own pleasure. After he died they were published as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl who Played with Fire” and “The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”. By early in 2010, these books had sold 27 million copies in 40 countries with a number of movie adaptations of each. The box office takings and DVD sales have been huge. The estate of Stieg Larsson is now reportedly worth over $30M and this figure is growing daily. The day before he died, he would not have imagined in his wildest dreams that his estate would be so valuable, a lesson for everybody.Let us now move on to…
Mistake number 2 – keep your Will current. Mr Larsson wrote his Will in 1977 and hadn’t updated it since. A quick look at his life and career would suggest that his intentions in 1977 would be wildly different from his intentions in 2005 when he died. His Will actually left everything to the Socialist Party, but by the time he died he had a common law partner who he had lived with for 30 years. She was not included in the Will because at the time of writing they’d barely been together more than a year or so.
Mistake number 3 – sign the Will properly. Sadly, although Mr Larsson took the time to prepare his Will back in 1977, he didn’t sign it in the presence of two witnesses, rendering it a useless scrap of paper. In Sweden, as well as Canada, the UK and the US, if the Will is not signed in the presence of two witnesses it is not legally admissible (except in some jurisdictions if it was entirely handwritten, but in practical terms, a Will has to be witnessed. Some jurisdictions actually require 3 witnesses, but most require two).
Mistake number 4 – assuming that your life partner will share in your estate. The general fallout of Mr Larsson’s estate is that he died intestate and so his estate is distributed according to the legal formula for that jurisdiction. In this case, he had no wife; common-law is not a recognised state for estate law in Sweden as well as in Canada, the UK and US. The concept of a common-law marriage whereby co-residence for an extended period gives the same rights as a married couple is a myth i.e. the rights to a share of any property is not guaranteed if a “common law” partner is not included in the Will or the individual dies without a Will. So Mr Larsson’s partner of 30 years is entitled to precisely zero, and the entire estate including all future royalties is shared between his father and brother.
It is absolutely unbelievable to think that a person in Mr Larsson’s position could have gone onto a service like LegalWills, created a Will in 30 minutes, signed it in the presence of his two next door neighbours acting as witnesses, and distributed his estate exactly the way he wanted it to be shared. Of course, for Mr Larsson, the legal battle is still ongoing, the estate is being devoured by lawyers on both sides, and his family and loved ones have been left with a bitter, acrimonious dispute.
Once again, it demonstrates that the most thoughtful act anybody can perform for one’s family and loved ones, is to write a Last Will and Testament.