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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Warren Burger - Episode 117

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following the death of someone that some may not count as a “celebrity” per se, but I guess this is my podcast and I can decide who I want to talk about on here, huh! Who we are going to be talking about is Warren Burger, who was a former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. According to his Wikipedia page, he served in that capacity from 1969 to 1986.

We’ll get into him a bit more in a second, but every week, when I sit down to prepare for future episodes, sometimes I struggle with “what” to talk to you all on here about – and especially with the celebrity estate planning episodes, there’s only so many websites that bring to light celebrities’ estate planning mistakes. So, at times, I feel like I’m running out of celebrities to talk about on here, but I know there’s no shortage – it’s just finding the information. So, recently, when I was do some digging, I found a website that mentioned Warren Burger’s estate – and I was like, “Why does that name sound familiar?” So I looked him up – and was like, “Oh yeah – got it, I remember him.” So, for sake of my brain, let’s count him as a celebrity – and talk about him and his estate plan!

Starting off with a little bit about Warren personally and professionally, of course…

According to his Wikipedia page, Warren hailed from Saint Paul, Minnesota – which hey, holds a special place in my little heart. A lot of my mom’s side of the family live in Minnesota. More used to be in the Saint Paul-area than are there now, but nonetheless, big fan of Minnesota! Anyway, so as Warren was wrapping up his senior year of high school, he received a partial scholarship to attend Princeton University, but due to his family’s finances, he was unable to attend. So, he ended up going to University of Minnesota. Later, he enrolled and attended St. Paul College of Law (which is now known as Mitchell Hamline School of Law). After graduation, he began working in law at a firm in Saint Paul – and even a bit later, he started teaching at the law school he attended.

Shortly thereafter is when his political endeavors began. I won’t bore you with the beginning stages of his political career, but eventually, he was nominated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to sit as the US Court of Appeals Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit. He served in that role until 1969 – which is when he was nominated to the US Supreme Court. Though, for my history buffs, if you remember, there was a bit of drama about this! In mid-1968, the current Chief Justice Earl Warren decided to announce his retirement and the current President was Lyndon Johnson. Well, President Johnson nominated a current Supreme Court Justice named Abe Fortas to be in the Chief Justice position, but a filibuster in the Senate blocked his confirmation – so President Johnson ended up withdrawing his nomination of Abe Fortas. Later in 1968, President Johnson was out and Richard Nixon was elected as the next President. So, President Nixon is HOW Warren came to be on the US Supreme Court – he was nominated by President Nixon in mid-1969 and later confirmed by Senate to be the next Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He served until 1986. All of that according to his Wikipedia page.

Now, I could sit here for a handful of minutes explaining the “big” cases he was involved in, which DID include the famous Roe vs. Wade case, but I’ll let you go down that rabbit hole, if you so wish. More personally-speaking, he was married to a lady named Elvera – and they married in 1933. Together, they had two children named Wade and Margaret. All are now-deceased. Warren’s wife, Elvera, died in their home in 1994 at the age of 86; his son, Wade, died in 2002 at the age of 66; and his daughter, Margaret, died in 2017 at the age of 71. Warren himself died in 1995 at the age of 87 due to congestive heart failure. So, he died after his wife, but before his kids.

So, shifting to his estate/estate plan, I can officially confirm he had an estate plan – specifically, a Last Will and Testament. Though, I say that loosely because after he passed, it was discovered he had actually drafted and typed up his own Will – and it was only 176 words in length. To give you some context, I script out these Legal Tea episodes, which I’ve talked about before on here. Anyway, right now, I’m at about 2 pages on Microsoft Word and it’s nearly 900 words. So, if his Will was only 176 words … it probably was barely a page in length, which is CRAZY. To give you further insight, the most BASIC Will I do for clients is like 6-7 pages in length, so I legitimately cannot even imagine how super basic his Will was. Yikes!

One article (from the Washington Post linked in the source links) shared a few things regarding Warren’s Will that I found to be interesting: First, it shared that one-third of his Estate was to be distributed to his daughter, Margaret, and two-thirds of his Estate was to be distributed to his son, Wade. I find it interesting it was not an equal divide between his two kids – but maybe that was heavily considered and that’s the decision he came to. The second thing the article shared that I found interesting is that they described his drafting as being done “hastily” because in the section that appointed the Executors, he actually misspelled Executors – and it appears it was just a straight-up typo because how it’s spelled would not even be pronounced Executors. It’d be more like Exe-uctors!

Third, the article shared that the Will failed to deal with some pretty basic estate stuff – like, it failed to give the Executors the power to deal with real estate (which the Executors had to request special permission from the Court to get the power – which is just unnecessary costs/legal fees, but it had to be done!) … it also failed to waive a bond (which is another very standard thing that is put in a Will – that way, the Court does not set a bond for and on the Executor … the slip-ups don’t stop there because it also failed to be, what we call it in my world as, “self-proving” meaning it failed to have two witnesses (meaning two witnesses did not also sign the Will to state they saw Warren sign). That creates extra problems/headaches in my little estate world. And when things create extra problems/headaches in my world, you better believe that is more fees – because it’s more work!

The final thing that is sort of a “cautionary tale” from Warren’s Will, which is a nice follow-up from last week’s episode on estate taxes, is that a lot of people think that Warren really slipped up and failed to do “extra” planning that could have been done to avoid paying estate taxes. The Washington Post article estimated that Warren’s estate would have likely paid nearly $400,000 (they said around $378,000) in FEDERAL estate taxes – and another $80,000 or so in STATE federal tax (which at the time, Virginia had a STATE estate tax). If you remember from my last episode when I really got into estate taxes, Virginia today does not have a STATE estate tax any longer, but federally-speaking, we are all subject to the federal estate tax. So, at the time of Warren’s passing, there was, of course, the federal estate tax, but Virginia, at the time, had state estate tax too. A true double whammy! And as we discussed last week, there are lots of options out there that if estate taxes are a pertinent and relevant issue to you, there are lots of tools to do planning-wise, through all sorts of different vehicles like trusts, to either NOT have your estate pay an estate tax OR heavily reduce the bill. Though, it requires planning – which, since Warren whipped up a 176 word Will, I’m not thinking there was a ton of time and energy devoted to getting his estate plan really taken care of.

So, I say allllll of that and as I continued my research on Warren’s estate, and what happened, I found a blog post from Bridge Law, an estate and real estate firm in California, who actually say that all of that I just reported – came from an attorney by the name of George Dodge, who wrote a piece for his local Bar Association journal – and what he shared, just caught fire. But, really, according to Bridge Law, what happened was actually all not too bad – and maybe not bad at all. Their blog post shared, “Many news outlets took Mr. Dodge’s word as fact and went on to publish numerous stories about [Warren] Burger’s foolish mistake, openly mocking his alleged incompetence. In all actuality, [Warren] and his wife (who passed a year before) did indeed [take] steps to minimize their tax liability. This is clear from Elvera’s Will, which Mr. Dodge said he didn’t consider.” So, interestingly, Bridge Law took the opposite perspective – that, Warren DID accomplish some estate tax planning. Honestly, for the sake of this episode, I thought it was important to share both sides, both perspectives.

However, at the end of the day, there are two takeaways from Warren’s estate – first, let’s not write our own Will, okay? I mean, he didn’t handwrite it, he typed it, but even Bridge Law, in their blog post, agreed that the 176 page Will could have been far more detailed to eliminate a lot of costs/fees that occurred due to how … entirely too simple it was. Second, whether you believe George Dodge (that reported that his estate got hit with significant estate taxes) or if you believe Bridge Law (that Warren and his wife, Elvera, DID do planning and DID save their money from estate taxes), at the end of the day, the takeaway on this front is this – regardless, to be successful at estate tax planning, there has to be a proactive plan in place. Rarely, if ever, can something be done in the 11th hour to save estate taxes. Many do gifts over their lifetime … and do various types of trusts … that all have to be done over time – not on your death bed. So, if estate tax planning is pertinent to you, be sure you start sooner rather than later … because it can become too late.

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. Always good stuff on those episodes! Next week, funny enough, will land on Halloween, so I wanted to do something kind of extra spooky – I know, since here on Legal Tea we have to talk a lot about death and dying, I wanted to do something a bit different next week, and in light of it being Halloween, we’re going to talk about funeral planning – and options that exists (that real clients have done) to ensure your wishes are carried through. I’ll share some interesting things I’ve seen play out in terms of funeral planning. So, tune in for that next week, my friends ,and until then, take care and be well!


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