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Getting Divorced? Don’t Overlook These 4 Updates to Your Estate Plan—Part 2

Going through divorce can be an overwhelming experience that impacts nearly every facet of your life, including estate planning. Yet, with so much to deal with during the divorce process, many people forget to update their plan or put it off until it’s too late.

Failing to update your plan before, during, and after your divorce can have a number of potentially tragic consequences, some of which you’ve likely not considered—and in most cases, you can’t rely on your divorce lawyer to bring them up. If you are in the midst of a divorce, and your divorce lawyer has not brought up estate planning, there are several things you need to know. First off, you need to update your estate plan, not only after your divorce is final, but as soon as you know a split is inevitable.

Here’s why: until your divorce is final, your marriage is legally in full effect. This means if you die or become incapacitated while your divorce is ongoing and haven’t updated your estate plan, your soon-to-be ex-spouse could end up with complete control over your life and assets. And that’s generally not a good idea, nor what you would want.


Given that you’re ending the relationship, you probably wouldn’t want him or her having that much power, and if that’s the case, you must take action. While state laws can limit your ability to make certain changes to your estate plan once your divorce has been filed, there are a handful of important updates you should consider making as soon as divorce is on the horizon.

Last week in part one, we discussed the first two changes you should make to your plan: updating your beneficiary designations and power of attorney documents. Here in part two, we’ll cover the final updates to consider.

3. Create a new will

Creating a new will is not something that can wait until after your divorce. In fact, you should create a new will as soon as you decide to get divorced, since once divorce papers are filed, you may not be able to change your will. And because most married couples name each other as their executor and the beneficiary of their estate, it’s important to name a new person to fill these roles as well.When creating a new will, rethink how you want your assets divided upon your death. This most likely means naming new beneficiaries for any assets that you’d previously left to your future ex and his or her family. Keep in mind that some states have community-property laws that entitle your surviving spouse to a certain percentage of the marital estate upon your death, no matter what your will dictates. So if you die before the divorce is final, you probably won’t be able to entirely disinherit your surviving spouse through the new will.

Yet, it’s almost certain you wouldn’t want him or her to get everything. With this in mind, you should create your new will as soon as possible once divorce is inevitable to ensure the proper individuals inherit the remaining percentage of your estate should you pass away while your divorce is still ongoing.

Should you choose not to create a new will during the divorce process, don’t assume that your old will is automatically revoked once the divorce is final. State laws vary widely in regards to how divorce affects a will. In some states, your will is revoked by default upon divorce. In others, unless it’s officially revoked, your entire will —including all provisions benefiting your ex— remains valid even after the divorce is final.

With such diverse laws, it’s vital to consult with us as soon as you know divorce is coming. We can help you understand our state’s laws and how to best navigate them when creating your new will—whether you do so before or after your divorce is complete.

4. Amend your existing trust or create a new one

If you have a revocable living trust set up, you’ll want to review and update it, too. Like wills, the laws governing if, when, and how you can alter a trust during a divorce can vary, so you should consult us as soon as possible if you are considering divorce. In addition to reconsidering what assets your soon-to-be-ex spouse should receive through the trust, you’ll probably want to replace him or her as successor trustee, if they are so designated.

And if you don’t have a trust in place, you should seriously consider creating one, especially if you have minor children. Trusts provide a wide range of powers and benefits unavailable through a will, and they’re particularly well-suited for blended families. Given the likelihood that both you and your spouse will eventually get remarried—and perhaps have more children—trusts are an invaluable way to protect and manage the assets you want your children to inherit.

By using a trust, for example, should you die or become incapacitated while your kids are minors, you can name someone of your choosing to serve as successor trustee to manage their money until they reach adulthood, making it impossible for your ex to meddle with their inheritance.

Beyond this key benefit, trusts afford you several other levels of enhanced protection and control not possible with a will. For this reason, you should at least discuss creating a trust with an experienced lawyer like us before ruling out the option entirely.

Post-divorce planning

During the divorce process, your primary planning goal is limiting your soon-to-be ex’s control over your life and assets should you die or become incapacitated before divorce is final. In light of this, the individuals to whom you grant power of attorney, name as trustee, designate to receive your 401k, or add to your plan in any other way while the divorce is ongoing are often just temporary.Once your divorce is final and your marital property has been divided up, you should revisit all of your planning documents and update them based on your new asset profile and living situation. From there, your plan should continuously evolve as your life changes, especially following major life events, such as getting remarried, having additional children, and when close family members pass away.

Get started now

Going through a divorce is never easy, but it’s vital that you make the time to update your estate plan during this trying time. Meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to review your plan immediately upon realizing that divorce is unavoidable, and then schedule a follow-up visit once your divorce is finalized.Putting off updating your plan, even for a few days, as you are in the process of a divorce can make it legally impossible to change certain parts of your plan, so act now. And if you’ve yet to create any estate plan at all, an upcoming divorce is the perfect time to finally take care of this vital responsibility. Contact us today to learn more.

Getting Divorced? Don’t Overlook These 4 Updates to Your Estate Plan—Part 1

Going through divorce can be an overwhelming experience that impacts nearly every facet of your life, including estate planning. Yet, with so much to deal with during the divorce process, many people forget to update their plan or put it off until it’s too late.

Failing to update your plan for divorce can have a number of potentially tragic consequences, some of which you’ve likely not considered—and in most cases, you can’t rely on your divorce lawyer to bring them up. If you are in the midst of a divorce, and your divorce lawyer has not brought up estate planning, there are several things you need to know. First off, you need to update your estate plan, not only after your divorce is final, but as soon as you know a split is inevitable.

Here’s why: until your divorce is final, your marriage is legally in full effect. This means if you die or become incapacitated while your divorce is ongoing and haven’t updated your estate plan, your soon-to-be ex-spouse could end up with complete control over your life and assets. And that’s generally not a good idea, nor what you would want.


Given that you’re ending the relationship, you probably wouldn’t want him or her having that much power, and if that’s the case, you must take action. While state laws can limit your ability to make certain changes to your estate plan once your divorce has been filed, here are a few of the most important updates you should consider making as soon as divorce is on the horizon.

1. Update your power of attorney documents

If you were to become incapacitated by illness or injury during your divorce, the very person you are paying big money to legally remove from your life would be granted complete authority over all of your legal, financial, and medical decisions. Given this, it’s vital that you update your power of attorney documents as soon as you know divorce is coming.

Your estate plan should include both a durable financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. A durable financial power of attorney allows you to grant an individual of your choice the legal authority to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf should you become unable to make such decisions for yourself. Similarly, a medical power of attorney grants someone the legal authority to make your healthcare decisions in the event of your incapacity.

Without such planning documents in place, your spouse has priority to make financial and legal decisions for you. And since most people typically name their spouse as their decision maker in these documents, it’s critical to take action—even before you begin the divorce process—and grant this authority to someone else, especially if things are anything less than amicable between the two of you.

Once divorce is a sure thing, don’t wait—immediately contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to support you in getting these documents updated. We recommend you don’t rely on your divorce lawyer to update these documents for you, unless he or she is an expert in estate planning, as there can be many details in these documents that can be overlooked by a lawyer using a standard form, rather than the documents we will prepare for you.

2. Update your beneficiary designations

As soon as you know you are getting divorced, update beneficiary designations for assets that do not pass through a will or trust, such as bank accounts, life insurance policies, and retirement plans. Failing to change your beneficiaries can cause serious trouble down the road.For example, if you get remarried following your divorce, but haven’t changed the beneficiary of your 401(k) plan to name your new spouse, the ex you divorced 15 years ago could end up with your retirement account upon your death. And due to restrictions on changing beneficiary designations after a divorce is filed, the timing of your beneficiary change is particularly critical.

In most states, once either spouse files divorce papers with the court, neither party can legally change their beneficiaries without the other’s permission until the divorce is final. With this in mind, if you’re anticipating a divorce, you may want to consider changing your beneficiaries prior to filing divorce papers, and then post-divorce you can always change them again to match whatever is determined in the divorce settlement.

If your divorce is already filed, consult with us and your divorce lawyer to see if changing beneficiaries is legal in your state—and also whether it’s in your best interest. Finally, if naming new beneficiaries is not an option for you now, once the divorce is finalized it should be your number-one priority. In fact, put it on your to-do list right now!

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the estate-planning updates you should make when getting divorced.

Black Panther Star Chadwick Boseman Dies Without A Will—Part 2

On October 15th, nearly two months after the death of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, filed documents with the Los Angeles probate court seeking to be named administrator of his estate. Earlier this year, Boseman and Ledward were married, and the marriage gives Ledward the right to any assets held in Boseman’s name at his death.

Boseman died at age 43 on August 28th following a four-year battle with colon cancer, and based on the court documents, it seems the young actor died without a will. While Boseman’s failure to create a will is surprising, he’s far from the first celebrity to do so. In fact, numerous big-name stars—Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix—all made the same mistake. ​


What makes Boseman’s story somewhat unique from the others is that it seems likely the young actor put some estate planning tools in place, but it’s possible he didn’t quite finish the job. Based on the number of hit films he starred in and how much he earned for those films, several sources have noted that Boseman’s assets at the time of his death should have been worth far more than the approximately $939,000 listed in probate court documents.

So what happened to the rest of Bosman’s wealth? Seeing that his death wasn’t a surprise, some commentators have suggested that the bulk of Boseman’s assets passed through private trusts. But if that’s the case, why didn’t he also have a will, which would almost always be created alongside trusts?

Last week in part one, we discussed a few potential explanations for this apparent blind spot in Boseman’s estate plan, and how the young actor might have prevented the situation by creating a pour-over will to be used as a backup to any trusts he had put in place. Here in part two, we’ll focus on another critical component of Boseman’s estate plan—incapacity planning.

Protecting your assets is only the start

While it was critical for Boseman to create planning vehicles to ensure the proper distribution of his assets upon his death, that’s just part of the overall planning he needed. The young actor also needed to plan for his potential incapacity—and given that he had cancer, the need for comprehensive incapacity planning would have been exponentially vital.

Regardless of his age or health condition, Boseman, like all adults over 18 years old, should have three essential planning documents in place to protect against potential incapacity from illness or injury. These include a medical power of attorney, living will, and durable financial power of attorney.

Should you become incapacitated and unable to handle your own affairs, these planning tools would give the individuals of your choice the immediate authority to make your medical, financial, and legal decisions, without the need for court intervention. If prepared properly, these documents can even allow your family to engage in planning that would support your eligibility for government healthcare benefits support, if needed. Finally, such documents would also provide clear guidance about how your medical care and treatment should be carried out, particularly at end-of-life.

If you were to become incapacitated without such planning tools in place, your family would have to destitute your estate before you could claim governmental support for your medical care. Your loved ones would also have to petition the court to appoint a guardian or conservator to manage your affairs, which can be extremely costly, time consuming, and even traumatic.

Seeing that Boseman was suffering from end-stage colon cancer, such planning tools for incapacity would have been an absolutely critical part of his plan. And while we don’t know for sure if he had such documents in place, given that he died peacefully at home surrounded by his friends and loved ones, it seems more than likely that he did.

No one here gets out alive

As Boseman’s death illustrates, even superheroes need to plan for the future. Death and illness can strike any of us at any time. And regardless of how much money you have, you need a comprehensive estate plan in place, not only to protect and pass on your material assets to your loved ones when you die, but also to ensure you’ll be properly cared for in the event of your incapacity from illness or injury.

Whether you already have a plan created or nothing at all, meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to discuss the specific planning strategies best suited for your particular situation. With us on your side, you’ll have access to the same planning tools and protections that A-list celebrities use, which are designed to keep your family out of court or conflict no matter what happens. Contact us today to learn more.

Black Panther Star Chadwick Boseman Dies Without A Will—Part 1

On October 15th, nearly two months after the death of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, filed documents with the Los Angeles probate court seeking to be named administrator of his estate. Earlier this year, Boseman and Ledward were married, and the marriage gives Ledward the right to any assets held in Boseman’s name at his death.

Boseman died at age 43 on August 28th following a four-year battle with colon cancer, and based on the court documents, it seems the young actor died without a will. While Boseman’s failure to create a will is surprising, he’s far from the first celebrity to do so. In fact, numerous big-name stars—Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix—all made the same mistake.


What makes Boseman’s story somewhat unique from the others is that it seems likely the young actor put some estate planning tools in place, but it’s possible he didn’t quite finish the job. Based on the number of hit films he starred in and how much he earned for those films, several sources have noted that Boseman’s assets at the time of his death should have been worth far more than the approximately $939,000 listed in probate court documents.

So what happened to the rest of Bosman’s wealth? Seeing that his death wasn’t a surprise, some commentators have suggested that the bulk of Boseman’s assets passed through private trusts. But if that’s the case, why didn’t he also have a will, which would almost always be created alongside trusts?

We may never know, but you can learn from Boseman’s death and the experience of his wife, Taylor, so you can make the choice to keep your family out of the court process and the public eye, if that’s what you desire for the people you love.

A role model for millions

In addition to starring as Marvel Studio’s first African-American superhero, Boseman was famous for playing a number of real-life African-American heroes during his career. His most notable roles included portraying baseball great Jackie Robinson in 42, legendary musician James Brown in Get On Up, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall.

Boseman continued to work on multiple movies, even after being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2016. Highly protective of his private life, the young star kept his illness a secret from everyone, except for a few friends and family members. His death was a shock not only to his millions of fans, but also his close colleagues.

Indeed, even Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and Da 5 Bloods director Spike Lee reportedly had no idea Boseman was fighting cancer. And Marvel boss Kevin Feige only learned about his diagnosis on the day the actor died.

Boseman and Ledward, a singer who graduated from California State Polytechnic University, started dating in 2015, about a year before his cancer diagnosis. The couple were engaged in October 2019, and were reportedly married in a secret ceremony a few months before he died. Besides his wife, Boseman leaves behind his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman, and two brothers, Derrick and Kevin Boseman. Neither Boseman nor Ledward have children.

A planning blind spot

Based on court documents, the value of Boseman’s estate subject to probate is $938,500. Yet according to Celebrity Net Worth and other similar sources, Boseman’s total estate was worth much more than that at the time of his death—an estimated $12 million. Given this, it may be that the bulk of the actor’s assets were held in trusts, which aren’t available to the public, and are being handled privately through his attorneys.

Since the majority of Boseman’s estate is not subject to probate, he likely did put a fairly extensive estate plan in place to protect and pass on his financial wealth and other assets to his loved ones. Even so, the fact that he left roughly $1 million in assets unprotected would have been a glaring blind spot in his plan, and this has us curious about what Boseman’s lawyers were thinking, and whether Boseman was properly informed and educated about his planning decisions before his death. Unfortunately, many people, even those who work with fancy lawyers, do not understand their planning decisions, and their family must deal with the resulting consequences when it’s too late.

Because Boseman allegedly died without a will, called intestate, California law governs the distribution of any assets titled in Boseman’s name at the time of his death. Under the state’s intestate succession rules, his surviving spouse is entitled to inherit his estate, and she also has priority to serve as his estate’s administrator. Given the law, it’s almost certain the court will grant Ledward’s request to be appointed administrator of his estate and award her the entirety of the assets titled in his name at the time of his death.

As it stands now, Boseman’s wife must go through the court process known as probate to claim her husband’s remaining assets. This not only requires her to go through what could be lengthy court proceedings, but it also opens up her husband’s estate—and her future inheritance—to the public eye, which is something we imagine Boseman would have wanted to avoid.

There is one alternative possibility, which is total speculation on our part, that perhaps there was a will, maybe even created before the 2020 marriage, and the family all agreed not to file it with the court given the marriage and whatever the family may have known about Boseman’s wishes to benefit Ledward. Finally, we also wonder if there is any possibility that the probate was specifically opened to cut off any future creditor claims against the estate. Once the probate is closed, no creditors will ever be able to come after Boseman’s estate in the future.

Trusts with a backup

Given that Boseman likely used trusts to protect most of his assets, we would have recommended Boseman place all of his assets in trusts—either revocable living trusts, irrevocable trusts, or a combination of the two. By doing so, upon his death, those assets would immediately transfer to whomever he named as beneficiaries without the need for court intervention. Moreover, such transfers would happen in private, without Boseman’s assets or his loved one’s being scrutinized in the public eye. Indeed, this is what’s likely happening to the balance of Boseman’s assets that were not listed in court documents.

If trusts were used, we would have expected to see a document called a “pour-over will” created alongside Boseman’s trusts. Because it’s not practical to put some types of assets, such as vehicles, into a trust, and it can be challenging to move every single asset into a trust before you pass away, the pour-over will acts as a backup, and we always include a pour-over will with the estate plans we create for our clients.

Unlike a traditional will, which is used on its own to distribute your entire estate to your beneficiaries upon your death, a pour-over will works in conjunction with a trust. With a pour-over will in place, all assets not held by the trust upon your death are transferred, or “poured,” into your trust through the probate process. From there, those assets are distributed to your beneficiaries as spelled out by the trust’s terms.

Had Boseman created a pour-over will, the remaining $938,500 worth of assets in his estate would have been transferred into a trust and distributed to his family under the terms he laid out in the trust.

Yet, while a pour-over will allows assets not held in trust to be transferred into a trust following your death, the property that passes through the pour-over will must still go through probate.
To this end, a pour-over will should primarily be used as a backup to a trust, and you should do your best to transfer, or fund, all of your most valuable assets to the trust while you are still alive.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we’ll not only help you create the right trusts to hold your assets, we’ll also ensure that your assets are properly funded to your trust throughout your lifetime, which is a service few other lawyers offer.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two of this series on the estate planning lessons to learn from Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death. 

What the Netflix Series Tiger King Can Teach You About Asset Protection Planning-Part 3

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning and asset protection issues that could apply to your family.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning and asset protection planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ve been discussing some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning and a trusted advisor on the team.

In part one  and part two of this series, we discussed how the nightmarish ordeal Don Lewis’ daughters experienced following his death could have been entirely avoided if Don had worked with a lawyer to create his estate plan. Here in part three, we’re going to shift gears and focus on the estate planning mistakes made by the self-proclaimed Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic.

The Tiger King gets dethroned

While the news that Carole forged Don’s will was a huge blow to Carole’s credibility and reputation, that very same week, Carole achieved a major victory over her arch nemesis, Joe. And ironically, that victory also involved fraud, although this time Carole was the victim, not the perpetrator.

On June 1, 2020, a federal judge awarded Carole ownership to all of Joe’s property, including his Oklahoma zoo, 16.4 acres of land, several cabins, and multiple vehicles. The ruling was part of a $1-million judgment resulting from a trademark infringement lawsuit Carole brought against Joe in 2013.

As we wrote about in part one, much of Tiger King was devoted to covering the bitter public feud between Carole and Joe that eventually resulted in Joe being sentenced to 22 years in prison for hiring a hitman to kill Carole. During this feud, Joe and Carole—both owners and breeders of big cats—repeatedly bash one another in the media over the course of decades.

At some point during the feud, Joe creates a company called Big Cat Rescue Entertainment (BCR Entertainment) for his travelling tiger cub-petting business in order to poach Carole’s potential customers. Joe even goes so far as to create business cards for the new company that feature an imitation of the Big Cat Rescue logo, photos from the Big Cat Rescue website, and a Florida phone number to trick people into thinking BCR Entertainment was actually Carole’s sanctuary.

This leads Carole to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe, claiming he created the business cards to cause confusion between the two companies and steal her customers. The court agreed with Carole’s claim, and a judge ordered Joe to pay Carole and Big Cat Rescue $953,000. This judgment, along with the resulting financial stress it puts on Joe, is what ultimately motivates Joe to hire a hitman.

How not to protect your assets

Following the court’s ruling, Joe knows he stands to lose his zoo and everything else he owns to pay the judgment. Desperate to keep his business and prevent Carole from collecting any of his money, Joe attempts to shield his zoo by transferring title to the property to his mother, Shirley Schreibvogel, using a series of quit-claim deeds.

Discovering Joe’s attempt to thwart her, Carole files a separate lawsuit against Joe’s mother for fraudulent transfer of property. Joe’s mother eventually admits under oath during a deposition that the zoo and land were transferred to her by Joe to remove it from the reach of creditors, including Carole. This leads the judge to rule that the property was fraudulently transferred by Joe to his mother, and this judgment effectively reverses those conveyances, giving Carole control over all of Joe’s property.

Although we certainly don’t condone Joe’s actions, he had every right to want to protect his zoo and other assets from being lost to a lawsuit—it’s just that he went about doing so in entirely the wrong way and at the wrong time. In fact, had Joe used proactive planning strategies to properly shield his assets when he started his zoo, he most likely could have  prevented Carole from seizing control of his business—and at the same time, avoided the need to commit the crime that sent him to prison.

This brings us to our third, and final, estate planning lesson—and this one will focus on asset protection:

Lesson three: To safeguard your family’s most valuable assets from legal and financial liability, consult with an experienced estate planning lawyer to put in place and maintain a comprehensive asset-protection plan—and do so well before you need it.

While we know most people would never find themselves facing anything remotely similar to Joe’s situation, just about everyone faces potential liability from far more common threats. Whether from a lawsuit, divorce, debt, or accident, the more successful you get, the more risk there is that someone will want to take what you have.

Moreover, it’s a popular, yet mistaken, belief that you can safeguard valuable assets like a home or business from creditors and lawsuits (or to qualify for government benefits like Medicaid to pay for long-term care needs) simply by signing over title of your assets to another family member. Yet, as we saw with Joe, transferring ownership in this way not only won’t effectively protect your assets, but can also lead to a myriad of other legal complications for yourself and others.

Although there are a variety of different planning vehicles available for asset protection, the most airtight strategy involves the use of highly specialized irrevocable trusts. Such trusts are set up so that your most precious assets, including those you want to pass on to your children, are owned by the trust, not you. Since you can’t lose what you don’t own, those assets can’t be reached by creditors, lawsuits, or in a divorce.

For example, if Joe had instructed his mother to set up an irrevocable trust for him right from the start, and then either funded the trust with enough money to start his zoo from scratch or buy the zoo at some point after it was up and running, the trust would have owned the zoo, not Joe. In that case, Carol would never have been able to seize the zoo, even if she won a judgment against Joe.

Alternatively, if Joe didn’t have a parent or another loved one to set up the trust for him, he could have established an irrevocable trust for himself and then gifted his business and other assets into the trust. While this strategy isn’t as airtight as the first and requires the passage of years between the time of transfer and the time of protection, it can still be better than nothing, especially if you plan well in advance of any sort of an issue.

Like all estate planning, for your plan to be effective, you must have your asset protection strategy in place well before something happens. If you try to protect your assets once a claim or lawsuit is even threatened, you could end up like Joe and find yourself not only losing your assets, but also charged with fraud. To this end, get your planning started now, while there’s nothing to worry about, and you still have every possible planning option available to safeguard your assets.

Planning lessons for the average Joe

As we’ve seen over the past three articles, when undertaken without the support and advice of a trusted lawyer, estate planning and asset protection planning can go tragically wrong. Although the details of the Tiger King saga are about as abnormal as they come, the lessons presented here can show all of us how to  prevent extremely common planning mistakes and apply to practically everyone who seeks to put a plan in place.

Indeed, if you attempt to handle even the most basic planning tasks, like creating a will on your own or using an online document service or transferring your property,  you’re placing everything you’ve worked your whole life to build in serious jeopardy, while opening your family up to becoming mired in costly legal battles, even decades after you’re gone. Meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to ensure your estate plan works exactly as intended and your family stays out of court and conflict, no matter what.

What the Netflix Series Tiger King Can Teach You About Estate Planning-Part 2

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.


A tale of two wills

Last week, in part one of this series, we focused on the estate planning mistakes made by Don Lewis, the late husband of Carole Baskin. Don, a multi-millionaire who helped Carole found Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997. Following Don’s disappearance, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will and power of attorney. Don named Carole his executor in his will and agent in his power of attorney.

In his will, Don left Carole nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his three adult daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets. However, Don’s daughters claimed the documents Carole produced were fraudulent.

The daughters contend that their father was getting ready to divorce Carole, and because of the impending split, Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate, while largely disinheriting Carole. Yet because Don created this will on his own without the assistance of a lawyer, he failed to make and distribute copies of his plan to his daughters—or anyone else.

Don’s oversight ultimately proved disastrous, as the only copy of the estate plan favoring his daughters vanished from his office 10 days after he disappeared. His daughters alleged Carole stole the documents and destroyed them, so she could present her forged documents and inherit the vast majority of Don’s assets—and this is exactly what ended up happening when Don was declared legally dead and his estate passed through probate in 2002.

Although this is as far into the story as Tiger King gets—and where we left off in part one—more facts have come to light since the documentary aired that make the story even more scandalous, while also offering us additional estate planning lessons.

The Plot Thickens

After seeing the documentary, Chad Chronister, the third Hillsborough County Sheriff in office since Don vanished, reviewed the old case files and assigned new deputies to investigate his disappearance. In June 2020, after enlisting the help of two handwriting experts, the sheriff declared the will produced by Carole as “100% a forgery.”

This was something Don’s daughters always suspected, but were unable to successfully prove on their own due to a lack of financial resources. After Carole first filed her copy of Don’s will and power of attorney with the court in September 1997 (a month following his disappearance), Don’s daughters challenged those documents in court as forgeries.

Court documents show that in November 1997, Don’s daughters hired a handwriting expert to examine their father’s signatures on the planning documents Carole produced. The expert concluded that the signatures were forged, noting that they had likely been traced from Don and Carole’s marriage certificate.

But Carole hired two of her own handwriting experts that concluded the signatures on Don’s documents were genuine. At the time, Don’s daughters said they didn’t have the money to continue to fight Carole over the forgery issue, so they chose not to further challenge the documents, and the court sided with Carole.

However, given the new proof of forgery, can Don’s daughters further challenge Carole in court in an attempt to recover their rightful share of his assets? Sadly, it looks highly unlikely at this late date.

The Clock Is Always Ticking

Under Florida law, the general statute of limitations for legally challenging a will is four years from the date the will was filed, which expired in 2001. And while Florida’s general statute of limitations for challenging a will can sometimes be extended for up to 12 years in cases of fraud, that term expired in 2009.

On the criminal side, both the sheriff and Florida Attorney General noted that the five-year statute of limitations for prosecuting Carole for forgery has also run. Of course, there’s no statute of limitation for murder, and the sheriff said they were pursuing new leads as of July. So there’s a chance that Carole could be convicted on a charge related to Don’s death, and if so, she would be forced to give up all of the assets she inherited from him.

Florida, like most states, has a “slayer statute” that prevents anyone “who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent” from benefiting from their will. Yet even if that were to happen, it’s unlikely that Don’s daughters would be able to recover anything close to what they would be entitled to, especially since Carole has had control of Don’s assets for nearly two decades already.

Given these new facts, what actions should have been taken to prevent such an epic tragedy from occurring? This leads us to our second lesson:

Lesson Two: To avoid putting your loved ones through the unnecessary trauma and expense of litigating potential conflicts over your estate after something happens to you (and it’s too late), you must invest the time and money NOW to get planning in place with a lawyer.

Although Don was quite wealthy, according to almost everyone who knew him, he never came across as such. In fact, he was a notorious penny pincher, who reportedly was even willing to go “dumpster diving” if it meant he could save a dollar or two. In light of this, Don undoubtedly thought that he could save time and money by creating his own planning documents without consulting a lawyer.

Yet as we can see, trying to cut corners and save a few bucks by taking the DIY route with your planning documents is a huge mistake. Indeed, the potential consequences and costs to your loved ones can ultimately far exceed whatever minor savings in time and money you hoped to achieve by not enlisting the assistance of an attorney. As we pointed out last week, if Don had created his estate plan with the support of an experienced estate planning lawyer, none of this would have happened.

And that same lesson applies here as well, particularly in light of these new facts. Had Don worked with a trusted lawyer to create, maintain, and update his plan, Carole would have been unable to pass off forged documents supposedly created by Don in 1996. And that’s because his lawyers, loved ones, and the court would all have certified copies of Don’s most recent plan, rendering any previous versions invalid.

The reason you spend the time and money upfront to hire an attorney to put a proper plan in place is to prevent your loved ones from ever needing to hire their own lawyer down the road. Once something happens to you, whether it’s your eventual death or in the event of your incapacity, it’s too late—you must act now. By working with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can plan ahead to predict and prevent any potential for conflict that might arise over your estate, and we can also help ensure that there won’t be any legal grounds for your plan to be successfully contested.

Moreover, we can also ensure that your loved ones, along with anyone who might have reason to dispute your plan, are fully aware of the reasons and intentions behind every choice you made in your plan—and they learn about these choices while you’re still around. In fact, we often recommend holding a family meeting (which we can facilitate) to go over everything with all impacted parties.

Contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, today to ensure your plan works exactly as intended, and your family isn’t subjected to a nightmare scenario like the one Don’s daughters experienced and are still dealing with to this day.

But what about Joe?

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about Carole’s tabloid-headlining legal battle with Mr. Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic. We’ll explore the highlights of their epic feud—and offer more estate planning lessons based on it—in our third and final article in this series next week.

What the Netflix Series Tiger King Can Teach You About Estate Planning-Part 1

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.


The Feud

While the documentary’s dark, twisted plot is far too complicated to fully summarize, it focuses primarily on the bitter rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, who are both owners and breeders of big cats. Joe, the self-professed “Tiger King,” whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, runs a roadside zoo in Oklahoma filled with more than a hundred tigers, lions, and other assorted animals.

Carole is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a Florida-based sanctuary for big cats rescued from captivity. As an avid animal rights activist, Carole goes on a public crusade against Joe, seeking to have his zoo shut down, claiming that he exploits, abuses, and kills the animals under his care.

In retaliation, Joe launches an extensive media campaign of his own against Carole, in which he accuses her of murdering her late husband, millionaire Don Lewis, and feeding his remains to her tigers. The feud between Joe and Carole goes on for decades, and it ultimately peaks after Carole wins a million-dollar trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe.

The legal fees and impending judgment from the lawsuit nearly bankrupt Joe, eventually pushing him to hire someone to kill Carole. However, instead of killing Carole, the individual Joe hires goes to the FBI and informs them of Joe’s murderous plot. Joe is ultimately arrested for hiring a hitman to kill Carole, along with multiple animal abuse charges, and he’s sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.

Although the clash between Joe and Carole takes center stage and exposes key estate planning concerns related to business ownership and asset protection (which we’ll cover a little later) the most egregious planning errors are made by Carol’s late husband Don Lewis. In fact, the full extent of duplicity and damage related to these mistakes isn’t even uncovered by the documentary, and have only recently come to light following renewed public interest in the case sparked by the show.

What’s more, since the fallout from Don’s poor planning has tragic results not just for him, but for the very loved ones he was seeking to protect with his estate plan, we’ll discuss Don’s planning mishaps first.

Missing millionaire

Don, a fellow big-cat enthusiast who helped Baskin start Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997 and hasn’t been seen since. After having him declared legally dead in 2002, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will that left her nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets.

Carole was not only listed as Don’s executor in the will she presented, but she also produced a document in which Don granted her power of attorney. However, the planning documents Carole produced were deemed suspicious by multiple people who were close to Don for a number of reasons.

Don’s daughters and his first wife claim that Don and Carole were having serious marital problems before he disappeared, and that Don was planning to divorce Carole. As evidence of this, we learn that Don sought a restraining order against Carole just two months before he vanished, in which he alleges Carole threatened to kill him. A judge denied the restraining order, saying there was “no immediate threat of violence.”

Don’s daughters also claim that around the time the restraining order was filed, their father created a will that left the vast majority of his estate to them, and he did so in order to minimize any claims Carole might have to his property should he pass away. Additionally, Don’s administrative assistant, Anne McQueen, said that before he disappeared, Don gave her an envelope containing his new will and a power of attorney document, in which he named Anne as his executor and power of attorney agent, not Carole.

Anne said Don told her to take the envelope to the police if anything should happen to him. According to Anne, the envelope with Don’s planning documents was kept in a lock box in Don’s office, but she claims Carole broke into the office and took the documents 10 days after he disappeared. At the time, Anne was being interviewed by detectives when she received a call from the alarm company, letting her know that the alarm in Don’s office had been triggered.

When police arrived, they found Carole removing files from the trailer that served as Lewis’ office. She was being helped by her father and Don’s handyman. The handyman had cut the locks, and according to Anne, this was because Carole didn’t have a key. Later that day, Carole had the entire trailer hauled to the grounds of the big cat sanctuary.

Anne told detectives that Carole removed the trailer and its contents in order to destroy his planning documents stored in the lockbox. From there, Anne believes Carole forged the will and power of attorney she ultimately presented to the court.

Carole vehemently denied all of these claims. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Carole said she moved the office trailer because her father claimed he saw Anne removing files from it a day earlier. She also insisted she never threatened Don’s life, and that he disappeared on one of his many trips to Costa Rica. She further claims that Don sought to disinherit his children in his will, and it was only at Carole’s suggestion that Don left them anything at all.

Although law enforcement investigated Don’s disappearance from Tampa to Costa Rica, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the investigation failed to uncover any physical evidence, only a conflicting series of stories and dead ends. In light of this, Don’s estate passed through probate in 2002, and his assets were distributed according to the terms of the will Carole presented, leaving Carole with the bulk of his $6-million estate, and leaving Don’s daughters with just a small fraction of his assets.

While there’s more to the story surrounding Don’s planning documents and Carole’s suspicious actions, let’s first look at the planning mistakes Don made and how they could have been easily prevented.

Lesson 1: Always work with an experienced estate planning lawyer when creating or updating your planning documents, especially if you have a blended family.

If Don’s children and assistant are correct in their claim that Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate and disinherited Carole, it appears he did so without the assistance of an attorney. This was his first big mistake.

There are numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning websites that allow you to create various planning documents within a matter of minutes for relatively little expense. Yet, as we can see here, when you use DIY estate planning instead of the services of a trusted advisor guiding you and your family, the documents can easily disappear or be changed without anyone who can testify to what you really wanted. In the end—and when it’s too late—taking the DIY route can cost your family far more than not creating any plan at all.

Even if you think your particular planning situation is simple, that turns out to almost never be the case. As we covered in a previous article, there are a number of complications inherent to DIY estate plans that can cause them to be ruled invalid by a court, while also creating unnecessary conflict and expense for the very people you are trying to protect with your plan.

And while it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents; this is exponentially true when you have a blended family like Don’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there’s an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there’s significant wealth at stake.

The risk for conflict is significantly increased if you are seeking to disinherit or favor one part of your family over another, as Don was claimed to have done with Carole. In fact, Florida law prevents one spouse from completely disinheriting the other in their estate plan, so unless Don was aware of this fact when he cut Carole out of his will, she would still be entitled to one-third of his assets upon his death, no matter what his will stipulated.

By creating your own plan, even with the help of a DIY service, you won’t be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, however, we are not only specially trained to predict and prevent such conflicts, but our unique planning process can actually help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is our special sauce.

Finally, as we saw with Don, if your loved ones can’t find your planning documents—whether because they were misplaced or stolen—it’s as if they never existed in the first place. Yet, if Don had enlisted the support of an experienced planning professional like us, his documents would have been safeguarded from being lost, stolen, or destroyed.

When we create or update a plan for our clients, it’s standard practice to not only keep current copies in our office, but we also ensure that everyone affected by the plan is provided with the latest updated copies, and any older versions are discarded. Moreover, we ensure all beneficiaries of your plan know exactly what to do in the event of our client’s death, so your family can immediately put the necessary legal actions in motion to properly manage your estate.

If you’ve yet to create a plan, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been reviewed in more than a year, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can ensure that your plan will remain safe and work exactly as intended if something should happen to you.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the estate planning lessons you can learn from the Netflix documentary Tiger King.

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