Estate Planning in the News: California Decides for Anne Heche
Question: What happens when a celebrity passes away without any estate planning?
Answer: The same thing that happens to anyone else who dies without an estate plan. The court decides.
On August 5, 2022, actress Anne Heche swerved off the road into a residence. Ms. Heche was taken to the hospital and was pronounced brain dead. At the time she passed away, she did not have a will or trust in place. As a result, she did not formally appoint anyone to control her estate at the time of her passing.
In the wake of her untimely death, Ms. Heche’s oldest child, Homer Laffoon found himself mired in a dispute for control of the estate with Ms. Heche’s ex-partner, James Tupper. Specifically, Mr. Tupper objected to Mr. Laffoon’s attempt to serve as the executor of her estate. Tupper claimed that an email purportedly sent by Ms. Heche to Mr. Tupper back in 2011 essentially appointed Mr. Tupper as the executor of her estate.
Ultimately, the court appointed Mr. Laffoon as the administrator of Ms. Heche’s estate.
In the wake of the court’s decision, there is no way for us to know whether Ms. Heche’s wishes, whatever they may have been, actually came to fruition. Without a will or trust in place, the court was left to decide the matter based on statute. It is conceivable that Ms. Heche may have, in fact, preferred that her estate be managed by someone other than Mr. Laffoon, but because she did not create her own estate plan, the State of California essentially decided for her.
Who administers an estate if there is no estate plan at the time of death?
If a person passes away without a will or with a will that does not name an executor, the court will name a personal representative to administrator the decedent’s estate. The court uses California Probate Code Section 8461 (the “intestacy statute”) to determine who should act as personal representative for the purposes of the administration of the decedent’s estate. Section 8461 states, in pertinent part:
“Subject to the provisions of this article, a person in the following relation to the decedent is entitled to appointment as administrator in the following order of priority:
1. Surviving spouse or domestic partner as defined in Section 37.
4. Other issue.
6. Brothers and sisters.
7. Issue of brothers and sisters.
(**The full statute contains more categories. Not all categories are listed here, for brevity. Please refer to the statute for the entire list.)California Probate Code Section 8461
Who receives the estate if there is no estate plan at the time of death?
When a decedent passes away without a valid will or trust, the manner in which their assets will be distributed will ultimately depend on California’s intestacy statute. Below are some of the most common situations:
- If the decedent was married with no children: All assets are distributed to their surviving spouse.
- If the decedent was not married but has children: All assets are distributed to the decedent’s children.
- If there is more than one child, then assets are shared equally amongst the living children. If a child predeceased the decedent, that child’s children will take that child’s share.
- If the decedent was married with children: Decedent’s community property assets are distributed to the surviving spouse. The decedent’s separate property is divided among the surviving spouse and the children.
- If the decedent has only one child: One half to the child and one-half to the surviving spouse
- If the decedent has two or more children: One-third to the surviving spouse and two-thirds to the children.
- If the decedent has no spouse or children: All assets go to the decedent’s kin or heirs based on the closest relationship (e.g., first parents, then siblings, then cousins, etc.)
- If the decedent has no heirs or kin: All assets escheat to (i.e., revert to) the State of California.
Could this have been avoided?
Yes. And quite easily, in fact.
Although Ms. Heche’s death was untimely, the dispute over who would act as her administrator could have been avoided entirely. If Ms. Heche would have had an estate plan in place, including a living trust, Ms. Heche’s assets could have avoided probate altogether and could have been distributed directly to the people she wished to receive her assets. Also, she could have structured a trust to ensure that her minor child was properly taken care of.