What is it about celebrities that always draws us in? For whatever reason, we just can’t resist a good, juicy celebrity story. Maybe it’s because we can relate in some way, or maybe we feel like we can’t relate and that’s what makes celebrities interesting. Their lives always seem attractive but somehow… just out of reach. 

So for the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the lives of 4 celebrities and see what we can learn from their stories. I think you’ll be surprised to learn that you have more in common with these folks than you thought (even if you don’t also have your own private jet).

This week, we’re going to turn the spotlight on Michael Jackson. Even if you aren’t old enough to “Remember the Time” when Michael Jackson was dominating the charts, by the end of this article, you’ll see that he left holes in his estate plan that we can learn from.

Before we get started, however, I want to address the elephant in the room: many people, maybe you’re included, find Michael Jackson’s personal life and choices… concerning. That is completely understandable. The intent of this piece is not to defend or promote him in any way. Rather, this article’s focus is on his family and what they’ve endured in the court system for the last 15 years.

Now, let’s dive in and learn how you can avoid the same fate for your loved ones. 

It’s As Easy as “ABC” (and 1, 2, 3)

Before we take a look at the specifics of Michael Jackson’s story, let’s dispel a myth about estate planning: That it’s only for the rich or philanthropic. You do not need to be rich, philanthropic, or famous to need estate planning. You need estate planning if you own anything – even a bank account – and have people in your life you love. It’s as simple as that (dare I say it’s as simple as “ABC” and 1,2,3?). So as you think about your own estate planning, it’s time to “Beat It” past the misconceptions so you’re empowered to do the right thing by your loved ones. 

So what happened in Michael Jackson’s case? He had an estate plan that included a Will, and the Will established trusts for his mother, Katherine, and his three children, Paris, Prince, and Bigi. 

Let’s stop right there because there’s already an increased potential for conflict with this setup.

When your assets pass via “Will” (instead of via Trust), your assets must go through a court process called probate, which, my mentor says, is a “lawsuit you file against yourself with your money for the benefit of your creditors.” Subjecting your assets and your family to probate can result in a long, time-consuming, and messy court process that can be unnecessarily expensive to resolve. Plus, the court process is entirely public, meaning anyone can access the records and see information about your assets and family that you would rather keep private. 

A trust, on the other hand, bypasses the court process altogether, as long as your assets are owned in the name of the trust when you become incapacitated, or when you die. If your assets are properly transferred and retitled into the trust (this is called “funding” the trust), your estate can be administered privately and often takes less time than the court process does. A trust can be set up and funded while you’re alive, thereby avoiding probate, or it can be a part of your Will. When it’s part of your Will, like in MJ’s case, it isn’t established or funded until after the court process has played out. So if you’re trying to keep your family from going through the court process, putting a trust in your Will completely defeats the purpose.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far: if your intent is to keep your loved ones out of court and conflict, creating a Will alone is a “Bad” choice. 


Peace of Mind For the “Man in the Mirror” 

Since Michael Jackson’s assets were not owned in a trust, and instead his assets needed to pass via Will, there have been ongoing legal matters in court, which still aren’t resolved 15 years (yes, you read that right) after his death. Currently, MJ’s family is embroiled in a dispute with the IRS, and so the trusts he intended to be created for his mother and children remain unfunded, and therefore, some of his assets cannot be transferred to them, in the way it seems he intended. It’s also highly probable that the legal disputes continue to cost the estate a lot of money. That’s money that would have gone to his mother and children otherwise. 

To make sure the people you love receive your assets in the way you want, I cannot underscore the importance of education and intent. This is exactly why my Life & Legacy Planning process begins with educating you first. The first time we meet, I will show you exactly what will happen to your family and your assets after your death, based on your current plan (or the state’s plan for you, if you don’t have a plan). From there, I help you make intentional decisions about what’s right for you and your loved ones, based on your desires, your assets, your family dynamics, and your budget. 


Taxes – A Potentially “Dangerous” Situation! 

The Jackson estate’s ongoing battle with the IRS also serves as a stark reminder of the tax implications that can affect your plan and your loved ones. When it comes to taxes, you can’t think in terms of “Black or White” – there are many shades of gray to consider. If you intend to avoid as many taxes as possible, you don’t want to cut corners by either doing your estate planning cheaply or on your own. That could be “Dangerous!” I can help you create a comprehensive plan that minimizes taxes as much as possible, potentially saving you and your family (lots of) money. 

Speaking of saving money, taxes can significantly reduce the value of what you pass on to your heirs, which has a direct impact on your loved ones. To minimize this impact, together you and I will explore different strategies such as gifting assets during your lifetime, establishing irrevocable trusts, or using life insurance policies to cover potential tax liabilities. 

So our next lesson from Michael Jackson’s story is: when it comes to saving money on taxes, the stakes are too high to go at it alone. Work with a professional who can advise you properly. We aren’t clear why Michael Jackson didn’t get the kind of support necessary to minimize taxes and protect his estate from a long drawn-out court process, but what we do know for sure is that we can help you and your loved ones.


Avoiding the “Thriller” of Legal Disputes

The Jackson case also highlights the importance of choosing the right representatives for your estate. These are the people who handle your affairs after you’re gone (they’re called “executors” if there’s a Will or “trustees” if there’s a Trust). MJ’s family members have criticized the representatives for the way they’ve managed the estate. In particular, Katherine Jackson has alleged that the executors have been too frugal and are holding onto assets to maintain control. 

There’s always a possibility of conflict between your representatives and your loved ones, even if you aren’t famous and don’t have millions of dollars to fight over. So to help minimize the potential, we recommend you communicate your intentions to your representatives and to your loved ones during your lifetime. Consider holding a meeting so everyone knows what your wishes are and understands the intent behind your decisions. You may not be able to “Heal the World” on your own, but you can promote healing within your own family and prevent future conflict by opening the lines of communication now. We often facilitate these meetings for our clients.

Also, know that you don’t have to choose family members to be your representatives – even if you feel pressured to do so. If you aren’t sure who the “right people” are, think about people you know who are not only trustworthy but also capable of handling complex financial and legal matters. There’s also the option of choosing a professional representative, as Michael Jackson did, who might be more appropriate for your situation. When you work with us, we’ll be there to “Rock With You” through all the different scenarios that could arise, so you can then choose the right people for your unique circumstances. 

Our two final lessons from Michael Jackson’s story are these: 1) Communicate your wishes openly to your representatives and your family, and 2) Choose the right people to act for you when you no longer can. 

By learning from the challenges faced by Michael Jackson’s family, you can ward off the possibility of a similar outcome for your loved ones. Your careful planning today can pave the way for a smoother transition of your assets in the future, ensuring that you are able to support your family after you’re gone, rather than creating a mess for them to handle without you. I’m here to serve you and help you ensure your estate doesn’t become a “Thriller” of legal battles, but instead a harmonious transition that would make even the King of Pop proud.


“You Are Not Alone” – We’re Here for You

It’s “Human Nature ” to want to avoid thinking about your death, much less plan for it. We get it. But when we face our mortality, we’re able to live a more fulfilling life. The good news is that you don’t have to deal with it alone. We’re here to support you every step of the way. 

As a Personal Family Lawyer Firm, we help you create a Life & Legacy Plan from a place of education and intention, so that your loved ones stay out of court and conflict. And once you’ve created your plan, you can rest easy knowing your wishes will be honored, your loved ones cared for, and your legacy preserved. 

Click here to schedule a complimentary 15-minute consultation to learn more!