John Singleton, writer and director of the seminal 1991 film, Boyz n the Hood, died on April 29th at the young age of 51. Singleton, who had reportedly been diagnosed with hypertension, suffered a stroke on April 17th and was in a coma for 12 days until his death.
Singleton’s Will, which had been prepared in 1993, was filed by his mother, Shelia Ward, in Los Angeles County probate court on May 3rd. At that time the Will was signed, Singleton only had one child, his daughter Justice. At the time of his death, he had additional children and was not married.
When a probate estate is opened, the petition must provide certain information, including whether a Will exists, the approximate value of the estate and the beneficiaries under the Will or under state law if no Will exists. Though his Will has not yet been made public, Ward has presumably petitioned the court to be appointed the executor of Singleton’s estate and has valued his probate estate at approximately $3.8 million. According to reports, Justice is listed as the sole beneficiary of Singleton’s estate, leaving his other children to decide whether to prepare for a court battle.
There are some possible explanations for the apparent legal mess that Singleton left behind. First, it is possible that he had prepared a new Will between 1993 and his death in 2019. If such a document exists, its possessor must file it with the probate court, and it will revoke and supersede the 1993 document.
A second possibility is that Singleton may have left one or more Trusts to provide for his children. Those Trusts would not need to be filed in court and are thus likely to remain private—two of the primary benefits of a Trust. Due to the fact that his probate estate is only ten percent of his reported $35 million net worth, it is possible that Singleton utilized Trusts or beneficiary designations to pass large portions of his estate. However, if this was the case, then he certainly should have executed a Pourover Will, passing any probate assets to such Trusts as well, thus keeping his beneficiaries private.
If the 1993 document was indeed Singleton’s final Will, his other children may have a claim to receive a portion of the assets. Like most states, California affords certain protections to a disinherited spouse or child. The amount the disinherited children may claim will depend on the specific language in Singleton’s Will. Considering the fact that they were born after the Will had been executed, they are likely to have a claim.
Lessons from Singleton’s Estate Plan
The current publicity, ambiguity, pending legal costs and family conflict over Singleton’s estate could have been avoided through proper estate planning. First, for an individual of his net worth, Singleton should have been in frequent contact with his estate planning attorney for both personal and tax reasons. He is not the first celebrity to leave an outdated estate plan and certainly will not be the last. Estate planning documents should be flexible but must also be reviewed when there is a significant change in the individual’s family or financial situation. If it truly was Singleton’s intention to leave his entire estate to Justice and disinherit his other children, then the Will should have been updated after they were born and explicitly stated that he acknowledges all of his children and chooses to disinherit them.
Second, a Revocable Living Trust would have allowed Singleton’s wishes and finances to remain private. A Revocable Living Trust should be implemented in conjunction with a Pourover Will so that the only dispositive provision that becomes public upon the filing of the Will is that any probate assets shall be distributed to the individual’s Revocable Living Trust. In addition to privacy, the goal is that most, if not all, of the decedent’s assets pass outside of probate court and are exempt from being contested or claimed due to a disinheritance statute.
Third, one or more Irrevocable Trusts could have been implemented in order to reduce the size of Singleton’s taxable estate. If, as reported, his estate was worth $35 million at death, the estate’s federal estate tax bill will be over $9 million. By gifting assets during his life to an Irrevocable Trust and utilizing available annual and lifetime exemptions, Singleton could have reduced the size of his taxable estate.
As is too often the case, individuals and couples fail to update their estate plan as their family and financial situations evolve. While your documents should allow for certain flexibility, such as changes in exemption amounts, future-born children and successor agents, an ongoing relationship with your estate planning attorney is a crucial aspect of a comprehensive estate plan.