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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Betty White - Episode 41

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to “estate planning of the rich and famous” where we chat about celebrities and their estate planning. Today’s episode is on the lovely Betty White; an icon, right? Most known for playing Rose on The Golden Girls, but she was also very well known for appearing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and several game shows such as Password, Match Game, $25,000 Pyramid. (Side note: Is anyone a sucker for old game shows like me? Oh my goodness – it’s not uncommon for my husband, Justin, and I to watch these game shows!) If you recall, too, we at Legal Tea did an episode on the #BettyWhiteChallenge that happened shortly after her passing to raise money for animal shelters and rescues. Though, we’ve not done an episode on her estate/estate plan, so here we are…

As always, let’s talk a little about Betty personally-speaking (like family, marriage, etc.) before we dive into her estate and what happened following her passing. According to her Wikipedia page, after growing up in Illinois (another Midwesterner! Remember, last “estate planning of the rich and famous episode we did Tony Hsieh, who was a Midwesterner too!), Betty’s mother, father, and Betty herself (she was an only child) moved to California when Betty was about one year old. That was during the Great Depression. From there, they stayed in California and that’s where Betty grew up. She graduated in 1939, and two years later, the United States entered the World War II in 1941.

Betty, while volunteering with the American Women’s Voluntary Services, met her first husband, Dick Barker. Dick was in the Army as a pilot and after the War, they got married and began residing in Ohio. Shortly after moving to Ohio, Betty seemed to not enjoy the Midwest life so they moved back to California. After a year or so when they returned to California, Betty and Dick got divorced. Then, a few years later in 1947, Betty married a gentleman by the name of Lane Allen, who was a talent agent; though, a mere two years after their marriage, they got divorced in 1949 – supposedly Lane wanted a family, but she did not. Finally, in 1963, Betty married Allen Ludden, who as soon as I saw his picture, I was like, “Oh, that’s the host of Password!” (I told you I watch these old game shows!)

Betty and Allen had met on password when Betty appeared as a celebrity guest in 1961. Twenty years later in 1981, Allen sadly passed away from stomach cancer. While he and Betty never had any children together, Allen did have three children from a prior marriage – their names were David, Martha, and Sarah. Following Allen’s passing, Betty went on to continue to live a long, happy life. After all, Betty, who lived to be 99 years old, was only about 60 years old when Allen passed away. Nearly forty years after Allen passed away, Betty passed away on the morning of December 31, 2021. She died in her sleep from a stroke she had on Christmas Day.

Estate planning-wise, things have been rather quiet, which anyone in this estate industry knows is a GOOD sign. It’s been a few months since she passed and her final wishes estate-wishes aren’t plastered all over the news. That very, very likely means she had a well-crafted estate plan. Along those lines, let’s chat about what we DO know…

As we sit here today in April 2022, 4 months after Betty White passed away, it is likely that if Betty did not have a Last Will and Testament OR had “just” a Last Will and Testament, her Estate would be going through Probate. When things go through Probate, things get filed with the Court – that’s when we start hearing mumblings about a celebrity’s estate. Here, with Betty, it’s been sort of … crickets. A whole lot of nothing – no talk of probate, no talk of a Will, etc. but there has been talk of a Trust and we only know that because property records are public record, and it’s been determined that one of Betty White’s real estate properties is held in a Trust.

According to a blog by Antonoplos & Associates, a law firm out of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C., Betty owned a mansion in Brentwood, California – it is said to be worth approximately $5M. The blog shared that Betty purchased the house around twenty years ago and did so under the name of her Trust. That’s really why people are saying she had some sort of estate plan – and it consisted of a Trust – and the beautiful thing about a Trust is that so long as it is funded appropriately (meaning assets are in the name of the Trust), the administration of assets following the person’s passing remains private. Oftentimes, it requires absolutely no Court/Probate involvement.

Within an article on Benzinga, an estate planning attorney out of San Diego, California named Rodney Hatley was interviewed about Betty’s passing and the estate planning that she likely had. He mentioned something that I’m going to directly quote from him because it summarizes estate planning, especially regarding probate avoidance, so well. He said: “Because Betty White’s home was owned by a Trust, it will avoid probate, which is expensive, public, and time-consuming. If Betty had only had a will, or no plan at all, then the probate fees for her home would have been $126,000, or 3% of the value of that asset. Betty received good advice from her estate planning attorney and saved her estate hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He’s not wrong – probate is definitely a thing that can get very expensive, very quickly. That $126,000 probate fees he references – that is only 3% of the HOUSE only. That doesn’t even count all of her assets. Crazy!

To give an idea of how much we’re talking about with Betty’s Estate, the consensus, among different sources, is that Betty’s Estate is said to be worth around $75M. If we stick with Rodney Hatley’s estimate of probate fees being around 3%, the probate fees, had Betty not done proper estate planning with a Trust to avoid probate, her probate fees for assets around $75M would have been …. Around $2.25M. To be frank, 3% is “real.” Rodney Hatley is not out of line with his estimate of 3%. I often tell clients that probate legal fees around here in Indiana are usually between 2-4% … I’ve seen as much as 6%. So, utilizing 3% is not out of line … actually, 3% is more in the middle. Could be a touch less, but sure could be more!

In addition to the Brentwood, California house, Betty also had a house in Carmel, California. According to an article by Dan Avery on Architectural Digest website, Betty spent her final years in the house in Brentwood that we talked about a second ago – but this Carmel house was supposedly her favorite. According to a source who told the New York Post, “If she had it her way, Betty would’ve lived and died in that home in Carmel. It’s the home she shared with her [late] husband; it’s where she felt more comfortable.” Quite simply, as Betty aged, the Brentwood house was easier to access and move around for Betty than the Carmel house. According to Dan Avery’s article on Architectural Digest, which was released on March 30, 2022, the Carmel house is not for sale for $7.95M. If you are a nerd like me, I found the real estate listing and there’s a direct link in the source links for the episode, if you care to check it out. (Note; It’s the last link in the list.) The house sure is a beauty!

Beyond the question of “what” is in Betty’s estate, another big question, that again has so far remained private (part of the benefit of a Trust!), is “who” gets Betty’s estate. It would merely be a guessing game – while she had no children of her own, it’s said that she probably left something, but not all, to her late husband’s children, David, Martha, and Sarah. Though, as we discussed on Legal Tea episode number 31, where we talked about the #BettyWhiteChallenge that occurred following her passing to support animal shelters and animal-based organizations, Betty was a huge lover of animals and an advocate for them. So, it’s likely that under Betty’s mysterious estate plan, that perhaps she contributed to animal-advocacy organizations too.

What are the big takeaways from Bety’s estate planning – well, to me, I think one big takeaway is the privacy. I searched and searched and searched for some concrete information on Betty’s estate plan – as in who gets what, who is in charge, etc. – and there’s very little information out there. That’s the beautiful thing about 1) doing an estate plan and 2) doing a thorough estate plan. Things can remain private, so long as you put the time, money, and energy into good planning. We should have all known that everyone’s favorite grandma, ol’ Betty White, would not have let us down with some bad planning. We should have known Betty would have done good estate planning!

I often hear from my own clients and prospective clients – “Jenny, do we need a Trust? Do we have enough assets for a Trust?” I always answer the same way – First, Trusts are NOT just for the wealthy. I help a lot of clients get Trusts in place (and most of my clients are just everyday people). Instead of how much in assets, I always focus on the GOAL – It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, are you just trying to get the bare minimum done right now just to get something in place? Maybe a Trust is not needed. Are you trying to avoid probate? Are you trying to provide a specific distribution pattern (i.e. based on age) for beneficiaries? Or, are you trying to gain asset protection? If any of those are a yes, maybe a Trust DOES make sense. It’s very goal-dependent rather than how many assets you have.

Another big takeaway is that I think it’s safe to say that Betty had a Trust – property records are public record and you can’t “hide” things (since it’s public record). It sounds like it’s been confirmed that her real estate properties are/were in a Trust. So, the big takeaway with this piece, is that with a Trust, you not only have to have the Trust prepared and signed, but there’s a process that happens AFTER you sign the document called funding. The funding of a Trust means you are proactively getting assets into the name of your Trust (as in the Trust will own the asset) or possibly make the Trust the beneficiary. The funding process puts the bow on the top – without the Trust funding, it’s a pile of paper. So, if you have a Trust or if you want a Trust, be sure to get the thing funded. Any solid estate planning attorney can help with that. I promise!

Okay, let’s wrap this episode up – next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases (you know, not celebrity-level cases) that I, or my office, has personally worked on. So yeah, tune in for that next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Until then, take care and be well!


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