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 Heath Ledger, a super well-known actor, who was the Joker in The Dark Knight; in Brokeback Mountain; 10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale; etc. He was in a lot of movies – if you don’t know who Heath Ledger is, Google his name and I bet you’ll recognize his face!
As I usually try to do on these episodes, let’s talk a little about Heath, himself, before we dive into his estate plan –and what happened estate-wise following his passing. According to his Wikipedia, Heath was actually from and born in Australia, but in 1998, he moved to United States for acting. While Heath was linked to a few different women dating-wise, the one to know about for this episode was his relationship with actress, Michelle Williams, who he began dating in 2004. She actually co-starred with him in the movie, Brokeback Mountain.
Further according to his Wikipedia page, in 2005, Michelle gave birth to their daughter, Matilda Rose, specifically on October 28th, 2005. A little fun fact – Matilda’s godparents are Jake Gyllenhaal, who also co-starred in Brokeback Mountain, and Busy Philips, who was Michelle William’s co-star in Dawson’s Creek. Unfortunately, their relationship fizzled and it was confirmed in September 2007 that Heath and Michelle had called it quits.
It was widely known among Heath’s family and friends, including fellow actors and actresses that had worked with him, that he had a very hard time sleeping. According to a New York Times article in 2007 by Sarah Lyall, Heath explained that oftentimes when he took on roles, he had trouble sleeping – and specifically stated that the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight was impacting his sleep. And actually, following Heath’s passing, Michelle Williams shared in Interview Magazine that as long as she had known him, he had trouble sleeping – she said, “For as long as I’d known him, he had bouts with insomnia. He had too much energy. His mind was turning, turning, turning – always turning.”
On January 22, 2008, Heath was discovered unconscious by his housekeeper and massage therapist – he was a mere 28 years old. According to his Wikipedia, a few days later, on February 6, 2008, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office of New York shared that after an autopsy was conducted, Health passed away due to “acute intoxication” from a number of prescribed medications and that it was “accidental.”
Following his death, a Last Will and Testament was discovered – and super cool, because I’m a nerd about this kind of stuff, I found his Will, so I’m attaching a link to it in the source links for this episode. Anyway, so the last Will that Heath had done was done in 2003 – which was BEFORE the birth of his daughter, Matilda Rose. Because of this, according to an article in The Age, it actually left his $60M estate to his parents and siblings. The Age article even further explains that Heath also had a Living Trust called the Ledger Investment Trust, which his parents and siblings, too, were the beneficiaries of.
To add to the drama of things, shortly after Heath passed away and his estate “stuff” was hitting the news, a new headline starting making its round – that Matilda Rose was not Heath’s only child. Headlines started circulating that Heath had a “love child” when he was 17 years old with a 25 year old woman. These started circulating, too, just a mere 2.5 months after Heath had passed away. How awful. Anyway, so according to US Magazine, the rumor was nothing more than a rumor. In fact, the lady that people were saying was the mother and her husband, who was the stepchild of the child at issue, came out and shut down the rumors.
Thankfully, while not all stories have a happy ending, this one does – all things considered. His estate plan definitely should have gotten updated, yes, but it seems the Ledger family had good hearts because they chose to let everything fall to Heath’s daughter, Matilda Rose. According to a TV Guide article, around September 2008, Heath’s father, Kim Ledger, stated, “There is no claim. Our family has gifted everything to Matilda.” Which that turned out to be a happy ending because just a month later, in October 2008, a Forbes article shared that Ledger’s share of the income from The Dark Knight (from box office revenue worldwide) was around $20M. So yeah, Ledger family, you are good people – at least from what I know of ya!
Actually, along these same lines, I stumbled across a blog from a law firm in Fort Myers, Florida called Powell, Jackman, Stevens, and Ricciardi. They said something SO perfect in a blog they wrote about Heath Ledger and what happened following his passing estate-wise it said: “If not for the agreement of all family members on the moral and ethical thing to do under the circumstances, this story might have had a different ending.” I 1000% agree. I worked a case a few years ago where Dad left his Trust, following his passing, to like 32 beneficiaries (he had several kids, so he left them something, AND all the grandkids something) …. Anyway, there was something in that case where I had to get unanimous consent on something and I warned my client, “This may not go how we want it to go, but we can try.” By golly, all 32 beneficiaries signed off – to this day, I’m still amazed by that. Some people put family over money – SOME people, definitely not all!
I’m going to share a real quick story, then we’ll get back to estate-stuff, only because this story made me happy to hear. So, according to BBC news, Heath’s final film he was starring in was Terry Gilliam’s film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and unfortunately, he actually passed away when filming was not yet done. Terry Gilliam instead of scrapping things or starting anew wanted to pay tribute to Heath, so he signed on Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, to play the role Heath was playing, but do so as different incarnations. So, that is what happened, the three of them stepped in and finished out the filming – the cool part of the story, you ask? Well, all three actors did not take a penny; instead, the donated their fees to Matilda Rose. Is that not the nicest thing you’ve heard today?!
Anyway, so let’s talk about WHAT we can learn from Heath’s estate planning…
Well, the biggie is to update your darn plan if you have future children – or at least run your current Will by an estate planning attorney to see if there is a need for an update. There’s a little bit of a danger in specifically calling out kids’ names in a Will, if you plan on having future children or adopting. Here’s a perfect example why – let’s call this episode partly a celebrity estate planning episode, partly a cautionary tale episode because this story coming at you is a real life story…
A few years back, I worked on a case where a person prior to his passing, made a Will in 2005 naming his then-only child as the beneficiary. After 2005, he had another child, but never got around to making a new Will. So, fast forward some time, then guy passed away – leaving the Will naming the one child as the beneficiary, even though he had two children. His older child was in his early 20s, while his younger child was nearly 10 years old. His estate was modest – he had a house with a mortgage, car, and bank account – and the net estate, after expenses and such, was a whopping $26,000.
Here, in Indiana, there is a statute that specifically deals with children that are called “afterborn” meaning they were born AFTER the person created their Will. The idea of the Indiana legislation basically is to protect people from forgetting kiddos. So, here, even though the guy forgot to update his Will, the younger kiddo was saved because he could anchor to this statute and say “he forgot about me – I deserve to be a beneficiary!” BEYOND THAT, there is another piece of the Indiana Code that gives the younger child a $25,000 allowance against the estate because he is a minor.
What I am about to say will probably make you gasp – so the deceased dad’s estate had to pay the expenses first out of the estate and the Indiana Code states that the $25,000 allowance is considered an “expense.” So, the younger kiddo got $25,000 (out of the $26,000 net estate value), and then the older kiddo and younger kiddo split the remaining $1000. So the older kiddo ended up getting $500 … and the younger kiddo got $25,500. I’m not even kidding. Could this have been prevented? Yep. Sure could have been prevented by the deceased person updating their Will to add the second child – or maybe it was his intention to NOT add the second child as a beneficiary of his Will, well he should have updated his Will to disinherit the child.
Circling back to Heath Ledger – the message from me is pretty simple: If you have any big life events, i.e. new children, new grandchildren, divorces, marriages, etc., make sure to at the very least run the change by your estate planning attorney. This is why some attorneys talk about coming to see them every 5 years, 10 years, whatever-number-of-years because so many changes happen and the clients don’t let us know. While it would be hilarious, we don’t have a chip on you to know what you’re doing, where you are, who you’re with, etc. so we WILL NOT know if changes occur in your life without you telling us.
I have to assume that this slip-up by Heath cost his estate (and his little daughter, Matilda Rose, who ended up inheriting everything) more money unnecessarily. I’m certain that the lawyers for the estate, as well as the Executors and Trustees of Heath’s estate, had to work extra – beyond the scope of a normal administration with a similar estate value. I know I said this a few episodes ago that if I, the attorney, am working harder, why would I NOT get paid more? Same theory here – had Heath updated his estate plan, it probably would have been far more straight-forward meaning all the professionals would not be working as much or as hard. And therefore, more would have gone to his daughter, Matilda Rose, which probably would have been what he would have wanted.
Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up, shall we?
So, next week’s topic is a cautionary tale – a real-life case I, or my office, have personally worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about a client I recently worked on that, like Heath, paid way too many professionals (and I’m saying professionals in air quotes – you’ll see why I’m saying that next Tuesday, I promise!) to help with their father’s Medicaid. Tune in next time to find out what happened.
Until then, Legal Tea Listeners…take care and be well!
https://web.archive.org/web/20080527195235/http://www.aolcdn.com/tmz_documents/0327_heath_will_wm.pdf (Heath’s Last Will and Testament)