The recent death of legendary broadcaster Larry King elicited scores of laudatory messages celebrating his lengthy career. But King, who often bragged of never preparing in advance for his estimated 60,000 interviews, also did not do a great job of preparing his estate. In fact, he did just about everything wrong. Here are five lessons we can learn from Larry King’s less than exemplary disposition of his estate, which is estimated to be $2 million.
- Don’t handwrite your will. King’s last will and testament was apparently scribbled on a piece of notebook paper and included text that was crossed out. Is it even legal? Depending on the circumstances, yes. A will written out entirely in your own hand and properly dated is called a “holographic” will, which may even be accepted in the absence of the signature of a witness. Although King’s will may be valid under California law, expect this one to be challenged in court. Many probate judges are hesitant to recognize handwritten wills as they are difficult to verify. King would have been better served to have an attorney prepare a formal document that clearly stated his wishes.
- Can I get a witness? Most states require the signatures of two witnesses on a will. King’s handwritten will was never witnessed, which will almost certainly give rise to a challenge and a lengthy probate proceeding. Again, an attorney would have advised King about the need to follow state law on execution of wills, which includes having the signatures of witnesses on the document.
- Update your will. King wrote out his will in 2019. Two of his children, Andy and Chaia, died during the summer of 2020. But their names remained on the will, without any instructions about alternate beneficiaries. This may result in what is called a “lapsed gift,” and will certainly muddle the probate process. In many states, the law will give the property to the children of the deceased beneficiary, but it is better to have the decedent’s intent clearly stated in a well drafted estate plan.
- Beware of creating a new estate plan while divorcing. When King drafted his will, he was in the midst of divorce proceedings from wife #7. In many states, however, once a divorce is started you cannot disinherit a spouse until the divorce is final and all assets have been divided. Even though King excluded his wife from his will, his untimely death likely leaves her with a claim to his estate.
- Establish a trust. King did not place the estimated $2 million in his estate into a trust for his decedents, which would have solved many problems and helped his survivors avoid a lengthy probate process. The simplest way to keep your assets out of probate is to place them in a trust, typically a revocable trust which can be “revoked” or amended by the grantor at any time.
Melissa E. Sydney is a Partner and Chair of the Estate Planning & Administration practice group at Tarlow Breed Hart & Rodgers, P.C. in Boston, Mass. Attorney Sydney can be contacted at (617) 218-2031, or via email at email@example.com.