By Caitlin Brown
FREEHOLD- Entertainment news has been dominated lately by the passing of one of the biggest names in music for over thirty years- Prince, who died suddenly at age 57. Although he passed away on April 21, this story will remain in the news for quite some time, due largely to the fact that the superstar seemingly did not leave a will to cover the vast wealth of his estate, according to his lawyers. The announcement of his death has led to hundreds of people coming forward to request DNA testing, in the hopes of being named an heir of his estate- an issue that will take months, perhaps even years, to resolve.
Prince’s death and his failure to leave a will was used as a perfect example on the importance of leaving a will by Surrogate Rosemarie Peters, Esq., representing the Office of the Monmouth County Surrogate, during a lecture on Thursday, May 12 at the West Freehold Elementary School. Peters was presenting a lecture- a combination of both “The Many Costs of Not Having a Will”, and “Probate Problems of the Rich and Famous”- before the Freehold branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), during their monthly meeting.
With the chaos surrounding the estate of Prince since his passing, stemming from the lack of having a will, fresh in the minds of the large-sized crowd of AAUW members filling the school library, Peters then gave further examples of celebrities, including those who “got it right”, and those who, like Prince, passed away without securing their estates.
The most important point of the evening’s lecture was first and foremost simply the importance of making a will, and having the will done properly by lawyers or under the guidelines of the Surrogate’s Office to avoid errors that would result in being costly mistakes. In using examples of celebrities, Peters pointed out that these pop culture stories are mostly well known by the audience due to the enormity of the problems not having a will, or probate issues caused by a lack of proper preparedness, and the subsequent burden on the celebrities’ loved ones- an issue that would strike close to home as a concern for the women in attendance, all of whom have families of their own.
Another celebrity who passed away suddenly without a will was Jimi Hendrix, who passed away in 1970 at the age of 27 from asphyxiating on his own vomit after using barbiturates. According to Peters, Hendrix left behind a brother Leon, whom he had been particularly close with in life but, because of a lack of a will, ended up receiving no inheritance, and with the musician having no children, his estate ended up in the hands of corporate suits in the music industry, as well as the attorneys working for the Hendrix estate- an occurrence that would be frustrating to any family member left behind after a loved one’s passing, Peters pointed out, driving home to those in attendance the importance of having a will.
It is also important to update the will regularly, and especially after any major life changes, Peters discussed. She gave the example of Heath Ledger, who passed away at the age of 28 from a lethal mix of prescription drugs. According to Peters, Ledger did have a will, but it had not been updated since its creation three years before his death. The tragedy of this particular example, Peters explained, was in the fact that Ledger left behind a two year old daughter, with girlfriend Michelle Williams- and his will had been created before the birth of his daughter and not been updated since. Ledger’s entire estate was left to his family in Australia, Peters said- an issue that could very well happen to anyone who passes away suddenly, and who also may have failed to update their will after long periods of time or to include any major life changes since the will’s creation.
To show the importance of the work of the Surrogate’s Office and the benefit for someone who preparing a trust or will and utilizes the resources that the Surrogate’s Office, Peters pointed out an example of a celebrity who took matters into his own hands, with disastrous results. Warren Burger, the 15th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, should have been more prepared than the common citizen. Perhaps Chief Justice Burger felt his word was official enough to stand on its own, because he left behind a will of his own creation that totaled no more than 175 words, according to Peters.
“Going to a attorney will end up saving quite a bit of money in the long-run,” Peters said, while explaining that ultimately, it was estimated that the mistakes in Justice Burger’s self-written will cost his estate, and consequently, his heirs, over $475,000- a mistake very few of us could afford to cost our loved ones.
“The Do-It-Yourself mentality [when creating a will] will usually go wrong,” Peters said, and pointed out that most people in New Jersey do not know the legal requirements. For instance, Peters stated that there are rules regarding the notarization of different aspects of the documents, such as the two witnesses that are required.
Besides using an attorney, Peters discussed the importance of choosing the right executor. For example, she explained, American heiress Doris Duke named her long-serving butler the executor of her estate. Loyal employee aside, her butler was also an uneducated alcoholic who could have squandered and lost vast portions of her $1.5 billion estate, had he not died three years after Duke of his alcoholism. Had he lived, one can only imagine what may have happened with the lifelong philanthropist’s money.
Drawing laughter and amusement from many of the ladies of the AAUW in attendance, Peters also discussed the dangers of having a mentality of “this will never happen to my children”- meaning, it is quite literally laughable for any of us to believe that our children and other family members would never fight over our estate and their inheritance after our passing, which is a belief that simply cannot be counted on. Peters used pop star and politician Sonny Bono to demonstrate the fighting that broke out after his passing among his loved ones. Ex-wife Cher sued for child support; his father sued for repayment of a loan many years prior; and a “love child” came forward, demanding due inheritance. Having a proper and perfectly legal binding will, as well as a good executor, will always help combat issues such as these, Peters stressed.
One celebrity who was prepared for their passing and “got it right”, according to Peters, was Farrah Fawcett, whom Peters said was “far from being a dumb blonde”. Fawcett’s son Redmond was well-known for his struggle with drug addiction, and Fawcett consequently named a close family friend as the executor of a $4.5 million trust for her son, ensuring that he was provided for in life but also that he would not be able to mishandle the large inheritance, Peters explained.
Peters is currently serving in her second term as Monmouth County Surrogate, and is also a member of the Judiciary-Surrogate Liaison Committee, after having been appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court. According to MonmouthRepublican.org, she also serves as Vice President of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey and is Chief of its Surrogates Section.
Before being elected to the Surrogate- a position, Peters points out, that means she is the only elected official to a Judiciary- she was Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Middletown, and was a member of the Middletown Township Committee for 18 years, including servicing on the township’s Planning and Zoning Boards. Her lengthy political record also includes being the founder, former president, and current trustee of the Middletown Township Cultural and Arts Council, as well as the former president of the Middletown Township League of Woman Voters.
The Office of the Monmouth County Surrogate is located in the Hall of Records, at 1 East Main Street in Freehold. County residents can also visitwww.visitmonmouth.com/surrogate for more information on wills, trusts, and estates.