Carrie Fisher: Some Early Thoughts on Her Estate

May the Force be with you Carrie – you were one of the brightest stars.

The entertainment world lost an iconic legend today. Carrie Fisher, best known for her role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars films, passed away this morning after suffering a heart attack on December 23, 2016, while on a flight from London to Los Angeles. In addition to her Star Wars role, Ms. Fisher starred in many other films, and also authored several books, plays, and screen plays. She recently published her autobiography, The Princess Diarist.

From a legal perspective, it is far too early to analyze Ms. Fisher’s estate to any degree. However, one can make a number of observations:

  • Fisher was not married at the time of her death, but was survived by one child, her daughter, actress Billie Lourd, age 24. Ms. Lourd therefore would be Ms. Fisher’s sole natural heir.
  • Fisher was married for a short time to singer, Paul Simon. Ms. Lourd’s father is talent agent Bryan Lourd. However, Ms. Fisher and Mr. Lourd were never legally married. Therefore, neither Paul Simon nor Bryan Lourd would be an heir to Ms. Fisher’s estate, absent an express bequest in her will or trust.
  • Fisher was the child of two entertainers, the late Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Eddie Fisher died in 2010, and was survived by four children, including Carrie Fisher. Presumably, Ms. Fisher was a partial heir to Eddie Fisher’s estate, although few details of that estate appear to be public. However, Ms. Reynolds is still living and will likely leave her estate to her surviving son and Ms. Lourd.
  • Fisher was a California resident, so her name and likeness will be protected by the California Celebrity Rights Act for another 70 years. However, her depiction of Princess Leia was apparently transferred by contract to Lucasfilm Ltd. when she starred in the first Star Wars film at the age of 19.
  • Along with her other principal Star Wars actors, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, Ms. Fisher agreed to take a percentage of the movie’s profits, plus a take of TV screenings, re-releases and more. Therefore, these residual profit rights will presumably be inherited by Billie Lourd.
  • Carrie Fisher was involved with a number of charitable causes during her lifetime. Her will or trust may therefore include bequests for charitable causes.
  • While Congress and the new administration are considering a repeal of the federal estate tax, any such legislation will likely be effective no earlier than January 1, 2017. Therefore, the portion of Ms. Fisher’s estate that exceeds the 2016 estate tax exemption amount of $5.45 million will be subject to a federal estate tax at the rate of 40%.

Because of their notoriety, the estates of well-known celebrities are often illustrative of many issues that many people face in their estate planning. Only time will tell if important lessons will emerge from the Estate of Carrie Fisher.

Win Olympic Gold – And Pay for It

Olympic gold metals are assessed for income tax, but the real cost could be the estate taxes.

Every time the Olympics come around, there’s dozens of articles and posts about how Olympic medals are subject to income tax. The IRS considers all prize winnings, such as gambling or game show prizes, to be income and thus taxable. Olympic medals get lumped into this group (as do the cash bonuses they come with). Luckily for the athletes, their medals are valued at the time they are earned, essentially the value of the materials. A gold medal from Rio is estimated to be worth $564, a silver medal is estimated at $305, and a bronze medal has little intrinsic value. Since Olympic medalists generally treat their sport as a profession the value of the medal and related bonuses are likely to be offset with a deduction for the significant expenses that most athletes incur.

What people may fail to consider is the effect the medals will have on the Olympian’s estate taxes. Property in an estate is valued at the date of death, not the original value. And though Olympic medals have little intrinsic value, their sentimental value makes them worth far more. In 2013, one of Jesse Owens’ medals from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin sold for $1.47 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece of Olympic memorabilia. A boxer from Ukraine, Wladimir Klitschko, sold his medal for $1 million. Even a medal from an athlete who isn’t as well known may be valued upwards of $30,000. These values are included in a deceased Olympian’s estate and are potentially taxable.

Michael Phelps broke a 2100 year old Olympic record by winning 13 individual gold medals over the course of four Olympics (not to mention his 28 medals total.) The medals are worth quite a lot on the open market, even if Phelps is only initially taxed on their intrinsic value. When he dies, his estate will likely need to hire a specialized appraiser to determine the value and even then, it will only be an educated guess. Of course, since Michael Phelps is superhuman, he may never die, which would make this whole process simpler.

Competency Can be Tricky: Don’t Rule Out the Nonagenarian

The brain is a challenging maze and competency blends medicine and law in a complicated fashion.

Sumner Redstone, at 92 years-old and the controlling shareholder of his $40 billion media empire, Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. has accomplished a lot. And a court recently ruled he can continue to make his own decisions, including deciding who should be his health-care agent.

This ruling disappointed (to say the least) his former girlfriend and longtime companion, whom he had evicted last fall and removed as his health-care agent, before also removing her from his Will, in which she was to inherit $70 million in cash and real estate.

Although a speech therapist had to interpret Mr. Redstone’s impaired speech, the judge was swayed by the video deposition in which Mr. Redstone made it clear that he wanted his ex-girlfriend out of his life and preferred his daughter to be his health-care agent. The judge remained unconvinced by an expert witness who failed to overcome the presumption of capacity.

The brain is a challenging maze and competency blends medicine and law in a complicated fashion. Our country’s ageism tends to count out anyone over 65, but the judge in this hearing found otherwise.

The Estate of Prince – Let’s Go Crazy!

Early reports tell us that the late musician Prince died without a will.

Therefore, Minnesota “intestacy” statutes (i.e. statutes govern estates of decedents dying without a will) are going to control the administration of Prince’s estate. In a legal petition filed on April 26, 2016, by Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, Ms. Nelson stated that she did not know of the existence of a will signed by Prince. Because of this, no person currently has the legal right to act on behalf of his estate (such as a personal representative, executor, or trustee). In the petition, Prince’s sister asked a Minnesota probate court to appoint Bremer Trust as the “special administrator” of Prince’s estate. Under the applicable statutes in Minnesota, a special administrator has the legal authority to act on behalf of an estate in much the same fashion as a personal representative or executor.

In the coming months, it is likely that more information will emerge about Prince’s estate and the assets compiled by this intriguing artist. The special administrator will likely face of number of challenging questions, including:

  • Who is entitled to inherit Prince’s estate? While Tyka Nelson is Prince’s only full sibling, her petition names five “half siblings” as well. Under Minnesota statutes, half siblings are entitled to the same share of an intestate. If other half siblings are discovered, they will also be considered equal heirs of Prince’s estate.
  • How will Prince’s estate and ongoing business interests be managed? Prince’s estate includes extensive holdings of the rights to the songs he wrote, many of which have never been published or released. As we have seen with celebrity estates of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, the artist’s ongoing music sales and other intellectual property continues to have considerable value. Reports indicate that 1 million of Prince’s songs and 231,000 of his albums were sold on the single day in which Prince passed away.
  • How will Prince’s estate be valued for estate tax purposes? While the executors of Michael Jackson’s estate reported an initial value of $7 million for Mr. Jackson’s estate, the Internal Revenue Service has valued Mr. Jackson’s estate and lifetime taxable gifts of approximately $1.178 billion (yes, that is billion with a “b”). The matter is currently in a disputed case before the United States Tax Court. For iconic celebrities such as Prince, the artist’s mere “name and likeness” will likely be a separate and independent asset of the estate having significant value. Like the intangible goodwill of an ongoing business, an artist’s name and likeness has the potential to produce significant income in the future.

“Electric word life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else. The after world (and taxes).”

~Prince. Let’s Go Crazy (as respectfully modified by a humble lawyer).

Oregon First to Pass RUFADAA – Allowing Legal Access to Your Digital Assets

Oregon becomes the first state to pass RUFADAA: The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Accounts Act.

SYK has been advising our clients, friends and colleagues about managing Digital Assets (your online accounts) for many years, lamenting the fact that the Internet was outrunning the law. We’ve been writing about it, testifying before legislators, speaking at seminars and encouraging everyone to prepare a VAIL – or Virtual Asset Instruction Letter. 

We are happy to report that there is new light on the issue. Oregon has just become the first state in the nation to pass RUFADAA: The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Accounts Act. Oregon Senate Bill 1554 was signed by the Governor yesterday and will become effective January 1, 2017.

This law is important in that while it allows for personal representatives, powers of attorney and trustees to have access to online accounts to perform their fiduciary duties, it also requires everyone to be proactive in affirmatively stating in your trust or estate plan that you grant such authority; otherwise, the online providers’ terms of service agreements will control. And those agreements often give the online provider all of the power, including the power to hit “delete” when they know someone has passed, which could destroy vital financial information or precious memories you had intended to share with those you leave behind.

So dust off that will or trust you prepared so long ago and call your estate planner; it’s time that your estate plan caught up with the Internet.

Attorney Victoria Blachly is a fiduciary litigator who has been working on digital asset legislation for six years, testifying before legislators and presenting at seminars throughout the U.S. The issue became very personal to her when she lost a young niece and saw how invaluable her social media was to the grieving family and friends she left behind. Victoria worked closely with one of SYK’s estate planners, Jeff Cheyne, and one of SYK’s business attorneys, Michael Walker, to pursue legislation that was initially hard fought by very large and well-funded online providers.

Changing Your Estate Plan: Don’t Cut Up Your Money For The Last Laugh

Thinking about changing your estate plan? Have you ever thought about disinheriting your children? It’s one thing to think about it, but to actually attempt it is another thing entirely. An Australian granny presumably attempted to disinherit her children, but with no avail. Before passing away, the 85-year old cut up nearly a million euros ($1.1 million). Her family discovered the money on her bed. At first, the state prosecutor believed that they money would not able to be recovered by her heirs. Unfortunately for her, this attempt at disinheriting her heirs, by destroying her property did not work. If the fragments are present, and banks are able to validate the origins of the money as legitimate, the monetary value can be collected. The money was secured by the bank and all of it replaced. You may not be thinking about disinheriting your children but changing your estate plan without first talking to your attorney is risky business. In this case, the woman could have just as easily gifted her property to a charity or given it to someone else instead of cutting it up. If you are considering making any changes to your estate plan, contact the attorneys at SYK so you don’t make the same mistake the Australian granny did.

Our estate planning services include traditional wills and revocable living trusts. In appropriate situations our firm also provides more tax sensitive and sophisticated planning services, necessary in effectively transfer special assets, such as interests in businesses and real property. Our firm has a long tradition of assisting clients in optimizing gifts to charities, whether it be through the use of direct gifts, charitable trusts or other planning opportunities.

Contact Samuels Yoelin Kantor LLP to learn more about your options when you consider making revisions to your estate.

Blachly to Speak at ACTEC in California

SYK Partner and Trust and Estate litigator, Victoria Blachly will be traveling to Monterey, California to speak on October 16 for the 2015 Fall ACTEC Meeting. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) is a nonprofit association of lawyers established in 1949. “Its members are elected to the College by demonstrating the highest level of integrity, commitment to the profession, competence and experience as trust and estate counselors.”

SYK is proud to have two accomplished ACTEC fellows among its counsel:  Stephen Kantor and Jeffrey Cheyne.

Victoria’s presentation is entitled, “War and PEAC: Battling the Tech Industry. Back to the Negotiating Table Over Fiduciary Access to Digital Property.”

Get Your Discounts Before They Are Gone

The IRS is talking rule changes again.  It may be time to take another look at your estate plan.

Family-owned businesses often gift ownership interests in the business to younger generations in an effort to reduce gift or estate tax liability.  The reported tax value of those gifts is discounted to reflect the fact that the new owners lack the ability to control the business and cannot market the interest to other buyers.  The IRS now thinks it may be time for that practice to end.

The WSJ has recently reported that the IRS may soon greatly restrict or even disallow those discounts for family businesses. Exactly how and or when the IRS will inhibit discounts is still uncertain unclear, but, if the agency does act, the impact will be substantial.  Have you considered how such a change might impact you and your family?  Call the estate planning attorneys at SYK today to see how the proposed change affects you.

Digital Will? Not Recommended. Ever.

An Australian court has held that a will created on an iPhone was valid and could be probated. In re Yu, 2013 WL 6175174.  Shortly before Kartur Yu took his own life, he created an estate document on his iPhone. The question before the court was whether the will on the iPhone was valid and enforceable.

The Australian judge applied a three part test to determine whether the will was valid:

(1) it had to be a document
(2) it has to purport to state the testamentary intent of the decedent
(3) the decedent had to have intended the document to form a will.

Using the definition of document from the controlling legislation, the court held that even though the iPhone was an electronic document, that it was indeed still a document. Secondly, the court recognized that the document was created when the decedent was contemplating his death and it dealt with all of the decedent’s property so it satisfied the testamentary intent requirement. Lastly, the court held that the decedent intended the document to form his will because the will was created with a clear intention of it being a legal and operative will to dispose of the decedent’s assets upon his death.

While this may have worked Down Under, Oregon law requires, among other things, that to be enforceable a will has to be in writing, signed by the person who created the will, and signed by two witnesses. ORS 112.235.  So while electronic devices serve to make our lives easier in many ways, do not confuse convenience with a legally enforceable document.  Talk to your estate planner.

Victoria Blachly and VAIL Featured on The Bulletin

The Bulletin, a publication of Bend and Central Oregon, authored an article featuring SYK attorney Victoria Blachly.  The article, titled “Estate Planning in a Digital World,” focuses on the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (Oregon Senate Bill 369), Virtual Asset Instruction Letters (VAIL), and understanding what happens to your digital life after you pass. In March 2015, Blachly spoke in favor of the act during a hearing held by the Senate Judicary Committee.  Read the full article on The Bulletin’s website.

Contact Samuels Yoelin Kantor to prepare or update your estate plan to include digital assets.