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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Florence Griffith Joyner ("Flo-Jo") - Episode 95

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Today, we’re on the “estate planning of the rich and famous” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following the death of Florence Griffith Joyner, which she was also informally known as Flo-Jo. Florence was a very well-known athlete in the 1980s, late 1980s in particular, and her specialty was track and field. She was a kick-butt sprinter – breaking world records in the 100 meter sprint. At the 1984 Olympics, she brought home a silver medal in the 200 meter race and then in the 1988 Olympics, she brought home 3 gold medals and 1 silver medal. So yeah, she was a pretty darn good athlete. Unfortunately, her life ended too early, but before we get into that, let’s talk a little more about her, as a person, before we talk about what happened estate-wise following her passing.

Hailing from Los Angeles, California, according to Florence’s Wikipedia page, she was one of eleven children. Yes, eleven! Of course, while in school, she participated in track – and did quite well. She set many school records for sprinting and long jump. After high school, she went on to California State University at Northridge; she was, of course, on the track team there too. She got her first taste in the Olympics land in the 1980 Summer Olympics, where she had qualified for the 100 meter final. She did not win, but participating was quite the achievement, right? Unfortunately, Florence ended up having to drop out of college to help financially support her family – and she ended up taking a job as a bank teller. Her coach at California State University at Northridge, Bob Kersee, helped Florence get financial aid so she could be comfortable with getting back to college (and on the track!). (Little fun fact – Bob ended up becoming Florence’s husband’s brother-in-law.) Though, this time, she attended UCLA. Fast forward some time, Florence ended up graduating from UCLA with a degree in Psychology in 1983.

Shortly after graduation, according to her Wikipedia page, she really got to work – like, she competed at the World Championship in Athletics, where she finished 4th in the 200 meter race. After that, she competed in the US Olympic Trials and went on to get that silver medal in the 1984 Olympics (that I mentioned earlier in the beginning of this episode). Thereafter, she slowed down – but didn’t stop. During this time, she ended up meeting and marrying Al Joyner, who was a track and field star too. He was the triple jump champion, the gold medalist, in the 1984 Olympics. Anyway, after getting married, Florence got back into running – which ultimately, if I super fast forward time, is when she competed in the Olympic Trials and ended up at the 1988 Olympics coming up with four medals – 3 golds, 1 silver. Her times recorded for the 100 meter dash and 200 meter dash are still the world records TODAY – which is crazy cool to me.

Shortly after the 1988 Olympics showing, she retired from racing (her and Al also welcomed their first and only child, Mary Ruth Joyner!). At that time, she was interested in putting the tennis shoes down and looking at other opportunities that she was afforded – through endorsement deals and want to hear something kind of cool for all my Indiana listeners? (Side note: This podcast hails from Indiana – so I try to add some Indiana tidbits when I find them!) Anyway, she actually designed the basketball unforms for the Indiana Pacers team in 1989! On top of all this, she was also well-known for her style choices, including her NAILS – which is awesome! According to her Wikipedia, she even had six inch nails painted red, white, and blue for the 1988 Olympic trials … and like her page says, “Although many sprinters avoided accessories which might slow them down, [Florence] kept her hair long and wore jewelry while competing.” I mean, I LOVE that. Shifting from that to some sadness…

Sadly, about 10 years later, on September 21, 1998, Florence passed away while she was asleep at home. She was only 38 years old. It was released by the Orange County Coroner’s Office that the cause of death was “suffocation during a severe epileptic seizure.” While her death was unexpected, the cause of death was not exactly surprising because Florence had a condition that caused her to be subject to seizures. She had seizures in the past in 1990, 1993, and 1994. After she passed away, it was discovered that Florence had done an estate plan, likely and reportedly a Last Will and Testament, but the issue was that it couldn’t be found. No one had any idea where she stored it. According to the Forbes article found in the episode source links, in California, Al, Florence’s husband, needed to file the Will with the Probate Court within 30 days following Florence’s death. Well, because it couldn’t be located, nothing got filed – and drama ensued.

According to a blog by Harrison Estate Law located in Florida, Al actually owned the house that Florence’s mother was living in – and given Florence’s passing, according to the blog, he wanted to restructure some of his financial affairs, which included getting Florence’s mother out of the house, but Florence’s mother argued that she was entitled to remain in the house for the remainder of her life. That was just one example of what occurred between Al and his mother-in-law. Ultimately, since Al couldn’t locate the Will + since it didn’t get filed with the Probate Court within 30 days, according to a blog from Coral Gables Trust Company, Florence’s estate was distributed in accordance with California state law – and the Probate Court judge even went so far as appointing a total third party to administer Florence’s estate (which I’m sure wasn’t exactly what Al wanted to happen – and I’m sure that wasn’t cheap!).

So, as we shift to what we can learn from Florence’s estate – I think the obvious biggie to know and remember is that, of course, doing an estate plan is absolutely vital, but ensuring you are setting your Executor or Trustee up for success is equally important. As an estate attorney, I’m not sure how her Will could actually not be located – I have so many questions that the answers aren’t really “out there.” Like, did the attorney who did it not retain a copy? Here, in Indiana, if the originals were not located, we have laws that protect us and say that essentially a “copy is good enough.” Though, this all does remind me of a case that this nearly exact same thing happened to a client of mine – the client had a Trust and we couldn’t locate even a copy of said trust. It was crazy … let me just share it with you all!

So, one day, a paralegal grabbed me because she “just took a weird call” and wanted to make sure we could even help the prospective client. I was like, “Okay – lay it on me. What’s going on?” She proceeds to tell me that the person on the phone shared that their family member passed away, had an estate plan (specifically a Trust), that assets are held inside the name of the Trust, and no one can find the Trust document. They’ve searched high and low, and it’s nowhere to be found. The Trust was actually the caller’s grandmother’s Trust – the grandmother had passed away over 10 years ago. The grandmother had one child – who was the caller’s Dad. The caller’s Dad passed away in 2021, and the caller was administering her father’s estate when she located the assets that were held in her grandmother’s Trust. Talk abut a crazy case – this stuff happens, people! To normal people like you and I – not “just” celebrity-like people like Florence!

The financial institution that was holding the assets inside grandma’s Trust stated they “needed something showing the granddaughter/the caller was now the Trustee of grandma’s Trust.” The issue with that sentence is that it totally minimizes the appropriate process – I think the caller thought I could just whip up a document that states, “Okay, now this person is the successor trustee and things are fine and dandy!” If I did that, I’d be taking on liability – like, what if grandma’s trust put a bank as a corporate trustee, the bank should have earned compensation serving in that role, or something – who knows! The dang document is missing…

So, as I explained to the granddaughter, I can’t just willy-nilly appoint someone – I’m not THAT powerful. Attorneys have a lot of power in the legal system, but not THAT much power. So, at this point (and I shared this with her), I firmly believe that the only “person” that has the authority to appoint a successor trustee (without a Trust document) would be to involve the Court and have the Judge appoint “who” it is. Annoying? Yes, for the family. Cumbersome? Yes. Was it the best solution? Yep.

So that’s what we did – the client (good client!) listened to my recommendation thankfully, she recognized that the involvement of the Court was a GOOD thing, formalized things, and ultimately gave the family peace of mind knowing finally after many years since grandma passed, Ts were crossed and Is were dotted. So, like Florence here, when it’s time for you to #DoYourEstatePlan, let’s be sure it doesn’t get lost. There are a few things that you can do after your estate plan is created to ensure your family is not in a similar boat. So, let’s talk about them…

First, put your documents in a SAFE place – but also put them in a place that is, sort of, intuitive for your family. For example, I remember my own grandma used to put important stuff in her freezer – I’d reach in to get an ice cream bar and some important piece of paper would fall out. Don’t put your estate plan in your freezer (or any other silly place equivalent to a freezer). Oftentimes, I recommend a fire proof safe – the investment in something like that will be worth it. Along those same lines, I do NOT recommend a safety deposit box at a bank – banks get really weird when people die and oftentimes, don’t let the family access the box.

Second, perhaps make digital versions of your documents and store them safety on your computer (PS – If this route is a thing for you, do make sure your family knows how to get on/login to your computer if you were to pass….) My office maintains a hard copy of clients’ documents and a digital version, too, and sometimes when I explain this to clients, they’ll say, “Hey can you send me digital versions?!” So, ask your attorney to see if that’s an option and if they’re willing/able to do it for you.

Third, giving copies of your documents to people is both a good and bad thing. Good thing because they’d, of course, have a copy of your documents if something were to happen to your originals. It’s sometimes “bad” if you were to update your documents at any point – you’d have to remember “who” has copies of your documents and to get them replaced. The last thing you want is to give someone a copy, you update them, not give them an updated version, and they inadvertently operate by the outdated versions. Yikes!

So, now knowing all of this, be sure to make appropriate arrangements in your life when you #DoYourEstatePlan; that way, you don’t end up as a Legal Tea episode – like Florence and my very own client that I just shared with you. Alrighty, I think we’re ready to wrap this episode up, shall we? Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about a case where someone added their Dad’s name on a house because she didn’t have the best credit – well, Dad passed and because the Deed wasn’t setup correctly (they did it themselves), her Dad’s interest in HER house …. Well, just wait for next time, Legal Tea Listeners. Tune in for that next week, but until then, take care and be well!


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