Rocky Mountain High

Yesterday marked a year since I started posting on this blog – surprisingly one post is consistently read which happens to be about singer-songwriter, some time actor, activist and humanitarian John Denver who was killed in October 1997.

Denver died without a Will; His estate was worth $19 million.

Denver was a board member of the National Space Institute, the Cousteau Society, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). However as he didn’t leave a Will he couldn’t provide for these causes at the time of his death.

Denver purchased property in Colorado with the intention of preserving it forever as a wildlife sanctuary and open space, however this land was sold which may not have happened if this specific purpose had been stipulated in a Will.

Denver’s ex-wife Annie was appointed the administrator of the estate. His assets were divided between his 3 children with his youngest, 8 year old daughter Jesse Belle from his second marriage having her share placed in trust.

The probate Court took 6 years to finalise Denver’s estate. The Internal Revenue Service argued the value of the estate was understated by $2.5 million, and therefore owed about $1.5 million in back taxes. Similarly the IRS believed Denver’s record label, and Management Company were worth about twice the estate value. These disputes were settled with the estate receiving a $600,000 tax return some years later as the IRS had over estimated the value of the assets and the tax owed.

One positive aspect of the death of a celebrity is that it may trigger us to think about what documents we need to have in place. The enormous tax and financial hassles of probate or intestacy, even for normal sized estates is exacerbated when you’re dealing with the estate of a successful entertainer.

Denver’s family spent six years in court. If he had established a revocable trust then his assets could have been distributed without the need for protracted litigation. In making a Will leaving everything to the trust his affairs would have been settled much more simply.

Just making a Will could have simplified matters; importantly by making and updating a Will keep in mind the following:

  1. Decade – Go over your documents when you start a new decade of your life
  2. Death – Review your wishes whenever you experience the death of a loved one.
  3. Divorce – Take a look at what your plan says when you experience a divorce or other major family change.
  4. Diagnosis – Think about how your wishes might change if you are diagnosed with a serious health condition.
  5. Decline – Ensure that your plan continues to reflect your current situation if you experience a significant decline or deterioration of an existing health condition, especially when it diminishes your ability to live independently.

Many of the problems that Denver’s family had in relation to his estate could have been reduced if he had left a Will. Not only did they have to deal with the loss of a Father, brother, and Friend but also they had to deal with the additional costs and stress of intestacy.

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