George Michael: The Possible Unintended Beneficiaries of Not Having an Estate Plan
The unexpected death of the influential, iconic and wealthy British singer George Michael (real name Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) at the age of 53 demonstrates the undeniable need to have an estate plan in place when you die to protect your assets and ensure that your testamentary wishes are followed. George Michael’s rise to fame started in the 1980s with his involvement in the musical duo “Wham!” before transitioning into a successful solo career. George Michael continued to record up until shortly before his death. He sold more than 100 million records worldwide and had numerous songs reach No. 1 on the charts in the United Kingdom, United States and many other countries, including “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper” and “Faith.” As a result, George Michael’s Estate is likely worth in excess of $100 million, yet, because of his relatively young age, there is speculation about whether he had a Last Will and Testament and who will ultimately inherit his Estate.
People will often wait until much later in life before seeking counsel to prepare their estate plan and memorializing their testamentary desires. The pitfalls for doing so can be severe, not only because your estate could possibly owe estate taxes and administrative expenses that could have been avoided, but also because your property could end up going to a family member that you never intended to inherit from you. Everyday, loved ones are lost due to sudden or unexpected circumstances. It is important for everyone to have an estate plan in place that ensures assets are preserved as much as possible and pass to the right beneficiaries.
How Heirship Works in Texas
In Texas (and the United Kingdom), when a person dies without a Will, their estate will pass by the laws of intestacy (also referred to as “heirship”). Meaning, the state of Texas essentially “writes a Will” for the Decedent that directs the distribution of your estate. In Texas, heirship follows marriage and blood-lines. To determine heirship and the apportionment of the estate it must first be determined whether there is a surviving spouse or children or both. If there is no surviving spouse or children, then the property passes to the decedent’s surviving parent(s), sibling(s) and/or nephew(s)/niece(s), depending on who is alive at the time of death. The above can have unintended consequences for people with estranged or strained family relationships. The only way to modify that statutory scheme is to execute a Will.
For example, George Michael was a proudly gay, but unmarried man, with no children. His mother died in the 1990s and he was survived by his father and two sisters. Accordingly, here in Texas, his father would inherit one-half (1/2) of his probate Estate and his two sisters would split the other one-half (1/2), with each receiving one-quarter (1/4) of the total Estate, respectively, after payment of administration expenses and estate taxes. There were reports in the mid-2000s that George Michael may have had a falling out with one of his sisters due to her financial issues. If that was the case and if they had a strained relationship, then he may have never intended for her to ever get a penny and, certainly, not one-fourth (1/4) of his entire probate estate. Additionally, George Michael was survived by his boyfriend, Fadi Fawaz, had several god-children and proudly donated millions to various charities throughout his career; so it would not have been surprising for him to have left or wanted to leave some or all his Estate to any one of them. If he died without a Will, neither his boyfriend, his god-children nor any charity will receive any portion of his probate Estate because they are not his heirs nor are they interested in his Estate.
Same-Sex Marriage Heirship Law
There are various circumstances where a child, parent, sibling or niece or nephew could inherit a part of or all of an estate from a person who never intended to give them anything, including, but not limited to, estrangement, animosity, criminal activity, drugs and lifestyle choices. In order to prevent unintended beneficiaries from inheriting your estate, it is important to have a good estate plan in place. As an interesting side note, in June of 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that a state’s denial of marriage licenses to same sex couples and the failure to recognize those marriages was unconstitutional. Accordingly, same-sex marriage is now legal and fully recognized in the United States and, by implication, a surviving spouse from a same sex marriage would be considered an “heir” and entitled to inherit through heirship.
For example, if George Michael had been married to his boyfriend at the time of his death, then, in Texas, Fadi Fawaz would have been considered a “spouse” and would have inherited the majority of his Estate. Specifically, all community property, all separate personal property and one-half (1/2) of all separate real property would have passed to Fadi Fawaz. The other one-half (1/2) of the separate real property would have passed to George Michael’s father. You can see how much a marriage can change heirship division and distribution. Accordingly, because of the recent changes in marital laws, it is important for all couples to take into consideration the legal effect a marriage has on an estate plan and to memorialize testamentary desires.
By: Brendan Harvell – February 1, 2017
Let Spencer & Johnson, PLLC Help
The attorneys at Spencer & Johnson, PLLC can help you in understanding your estate plan or the estate plan of a loved one and help you understand the effect of same. If you happen to be a beneficiary or heir or believe that you should have been a beneficiary or heir and have questions concerning the validity of a Will or an heirship proceeding, please contact us at (214) 965-9999 to find out your rights and what can be done to protect your rights.Back to Blog