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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Michael Crichton - Episode 105


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 a name that you may not immediately recognize, which is Michael Crichton (Crite-en), who among many other HUGE hits, is perhaps most known for being the author of Jurassic Park. He was the author to many books that turned into mega films. So, there was Jurassic Park, The Lost World (which was Jurassic Park’s sequel), Congo (which I remember my sister and I absolutely loving – shout to my sister!), Rising Sun, Andromeda (Andrah-muduh) Strain, etc. Anyway, the guy was a heck of a author! However, at his passing, he left quite a bit of a mess – so he may have been a man good with words, but that did not extend into his estate planning endeavors! But first, let’s talk a little about Michael, as a person first, to get a better understanding of him, personally.

According to his Wikipedia page … He hailed from Chicago, Illinois, Michael was born in 1942 – but was ultimately raised in New York by his parents. Later in life, he attended Harvard University – and obtained his Bachelors and MD (Medical Degree). Smart cookie! Throughout his adult life, he married five times with four of the marriages resulting in a divorce. One of his spouses, Anne-Marie Martin, who he was married to for the longest duration, was the mother of his first child, a daughter by the name of Taylor Anne Crichton. Taylor was born in 1989.

Then, his fifth wife, Sherri Alexander, was who he was married to when he passed away – Michael and Sherri had Michael’s second child, John Michael Todd Crichton. Interestingly, which we will get to in a little bit, Sherri was pregnant with John when Michael passed away – so Michael never got to meet his second child, who was born in early 2009. Though, as you may suspect, that caused an issue with his estate. More on that soon… Another issue that we’ll talk about is that Michael and Sherri executed a Pre-Marital Agreement prior to their marriage. Now, the formal word is Pre-Marital Agreement, but many people refer to it as a Pre-Nup. A common misconception about Pre-Nups is that they “only” deal with assets in the event of a divorce, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that Pre-Nups also often deal with things after either party passes away, too. Again, we’ll get into that in a bit, but just know there was a Pre-Nup between Michael and Sherri.

Unfortunately, after a long and wildly successful career … fast forward time to early 2008, Michael was diagnosed with cancer and after he attempted chemotherapy treatment, Michael passed away on November 4, 2008 at the age of 66 years old. Sadly, according to his Wikipedia page, his Doctors expected him to fully recover – sadly, they were wrong. After his passing, it was discovered that he, at least, did not die without an estate plan – rather, he DID have an estate plan, which including a Last Will and Testament and Trust, but the issue, among a few other things, was that it was rather outdated.

According to the Probate Lawyer Blog, which is a blog that is prepared/published by Andy and Danielle Mayoras, who are known in the estate space for shining a light on celebrity estate planning, Michael’s estate plan had a provision that said: “I have intentionally made no provision in this Will for any of my heirs or relatives who are not herein mentioned or designated, and I hereby generally and specifically disinherit every person claiming to be or who may be determined to be my heir-at-law, except as otherwise mentioned in this Will.” So, to me, in my professional opinion, that is pretty crystal clear that he was basically saying, “NO ONE is inheriting anything unless they’re specifically mentioned in this document!” Though, where there was a little room for an argument is … did he REALLY mean to specifically NOT include his unborn son, John? Did he truly mean to do that? Or was it just a failure to update his plan? Or did he not fully read and understand the document?

In an interesting turn of events, Sherri Alexander, Michael’s widow and mother of their unborn son, sought court involvement to ask to become legal guardian of their son, John; therefore, if he were to receive an inheritance (and she further/later claimed that John SHOULD be considered to be an heir of Michael), she would be manager of it. According to the blog, it was noted that some have claimed that Sherri doing this was in violation of the Pre-Nup, but nonetheless, she was willing to fight that battle and got the court involved. Of course, Michael’s daughter, Taylor, had something to say about this filing … she opposed Sherri’s argument. It was shared, too, on an article on United Press International (linked in the source links for the episode) that Taylor even further argued that Sherri should not be a trustee of Michael’s trust. You see, a trustee is like an “executor” of a Will – they are IN CHARGE, not necessarily a beneficiary. Let me say that again – they are just in charge of things, not always getting something.

So, Taylor, Michael’s living daughter, was trying to also get Sherri off as being someone in charge. Her attorney, Adam Streisand, had something to say about that. He shared, “[Taylor[ has absolutely no legal or factual basis to make any claim that Mrs. Crichton has done anything other than faithfully discharge her fiduciary duties to all trust beneficiaries, including Taylor Crichton.” He further shared, “It is sad that Taylor Crichton would dishonor her father’s wishes and wage such an undignified attack on her family members, especially actions that would attempt to deprive her own brother of his right to share in their father’s estate. We have absolutely no doubt that Mrs. Sherri Crichton will continue to serve as a Co-Trustee of her late husband’s trust.”

Ultimately, Sherri’s legal team argued to the California probate Judge that the clause in Michael’s Will that expressly disinherited children was different than him accidentally omitting a child. They were hanging their hate on something called a “pretermitted heir” which according to RMO LLP, a law firm out of California, this is how they explain what pretermitted heirs are: It is “simply a child who became the decedent’s or was born to the decedent after the decedent’s Will or Trust was created. Here’s an example, Mary creates a Will and Trust outlining her wishes after her death, including distributions to her three children. A year after creating the Will and Trust, Mary has another child – yet does not update her estate plan. Years later, when Mary passes away, her family discovers that she never added her youngest child. That child is pretermitted.” So, with all that being said, it appears that Sherri remained on as Trustee – so back to who-is-getting-what and whether the unborn son at the time of Michael’s passing John, would inherit anything.

When all was said and done, the Judge appeared to side with Sherri (and not with Taylor, Michael’s oldest/daughter) and allowed John, a baby at the time, to inherit from Michael’s estate and trust. The tough thing about this part of the story is that no one will know what Michael would have wanted – we could have assumed he would want a portion, some portion to go to John, but that’d be merely an assumption. Or, maybe Michael assumed that Sherri could and would financially take care of John – and he did intend to not include his unborn child at the time in his estate. Who knows. Only Michael knows – and he’s not with us to ask. Instead, what would have been appropriate would have been for Michael to update his estate plan when he found out he and Sherri were expecting – and either update it to include the baby or update it to specifically exclude, in writing, the baby. THAT is what should have been done.

In fact, had Michael taken the time and money to update his estate plan, consider how much time and money would have been saved – after he passed, a court battle broke out between Sherri, Michael’s wife, and Taylor, Michael’s daughter, which of course took quite a bit of time, but also the mere cost of the litigation, likely took a toll on the estate value. And when it took a toll on the estate value, that decreased the eventual inheritance from their father to Taylor and John on LEGAL fees. Beyond even the time and money, it’s likely that the relationship between Sherri and Taylor was considerably impacted – not in a good way. I didn’t really look into things about whether they are on good terms now, but at the end of the day, had Michael updated his estate plan, he would have saved them conflict and corresponding hurt feelings. Just not a great situation all around.

One last quick note before we wrap up here – so, remember me saying that Michael and Sherri had a Pre-Marital Agreement (aka, a Pre-Nup). Well, it was confirmed they did because as a TMZ article shares, Michael and Sherri’s Pre-Nup was executed on April 22, 2005 and in that agreement, Sherri was to get $1,000,000 per year for nine years, if they got divorced, but in the event Michael died, Sherri would get the lump sum. So, even thought it kind of on the surface seems that Michael didn’t leave much or anything to Sherri, that is not necessarily true – she did get a portion of the Estate due to the Pre-Nup spelling that out. At least that worked out okay – seems like the Pre-Nup did its job! Then, before the kiddos got anything, they probably paid taxes, legal fees, etc. with the remaining balance going to the kiddos. It seems that at the end of the day, things worked out – but it required some court and drama to get there. Like I said, I’d be curious to know if Taylor, Michael’s daughter, talks to her brother and/or Sherri. I hope things eventually got resolved and things are on good terms, but oftentimes, these messy estate cases result in hurt feelings, choice words said, and relationships fizzle.

Alrighty, I think we’re ready to wrap this episode up. 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 go into a story, that is I suppose like a success story not a cautionary tale, but nonetheless, it’s a good one because it’s about a divorce couple, who are actually practically best friends. They share two children together. Basically, they didn’t want to combine their estate and estate plans, but wanted their estate plans to play nicely with one another for their children s—so the fact that they thought about that idea and executed on it, is just beautiful. So, let’s talk about it. Tune in for that next week, my friends,and until then, take care and be well!

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