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An Untimely Death, A Timely Reminder

It was somewhat surprising to learn that Jahseh Onfroy, who performed as XXXTentacion, had an estate plan in place when he was shot and killed in Deerfield Beach, Florida last week. He was, after all, only 20 years old.

After this post was initially published, TMZ reported that XXXTentacion had a will, leaving his assets to a previously established trust; he named his mother and brothers as the trust’s beneficiaries. This will still leave a complicated situation because his mother, Cleopatra Bernard, has also indicated that a woman (whose identity is unclear) may be pregnant with his child, who was apparently not considered in the rapper’s estate plan. USA Today reported that David Bogenschutz, XXXTentacion’s lawyer, said he will handle the estate’s settlement. Florida law has provisions for “pretermitted children,” meaning children whose existence were unknown to the deceased at the time an estate plan is drawn. The administration of the young man’s affairs is apt to be complicated even with an estate plan in place, but it is certainly better than if he had died intestate, without a will at all.

XXXTentacion’s death is tragic. If nothing else, ideally it can serve as a wake-up call for young musical artists to create an estate plan. While the typical 20-year-old may not need much more than the simplest of wills, a successful artist not only may have greater assets, but more complicated ones as well.

In the days following XXXTentacion’s death, his song “Sad!” broke Taylor Swift’s Spotify record for streams in a single day. Swift’s 2017 single “Look What You Made Me Do” previously set the record at 10.1 million; according to Spotifycharts.com, listeners streamed “Sad!” 10.4 million times the day after XXXTentacion’s death. The track subsequently reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The rapper also enjoyed success during his lifetime. XXXTentacion’s debut album, “17,” went gold and his sophomore release, “?”, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in March. Given his music’s popularity, it is likely XXXTentacion’s estate will continue to generate revenue for years to come.

XXXTentacion’s streaming record followed a brief period during which Spotify removed his music from its popular curated playlists due to domestic violence allegations against him. (XXXTentacion was awaiting trial in the matter at the time of his death.) But Spotify suffered listener backlash over the perception that its policy on “hateful conduct” unfairly targeted hip-hop artists at worst, and was at best confusing and inconsistent. Spotify restored XXXTentacion’s music to its promoted playlists in early June.

Despite the young rap artist’s legal troubles, his fellow musicians respected him for his musical contributions. Kendrick Lamar was among the established artists who championed XXXTentacion’s work, writing on Twitter last year: “listen to this album if you feel anything.” Prominent rappers, including Kanye West, have also publicly lamented XXXTentacion’s death, citing the loss of an up-and-coming talent as well as a young life cut short.

Unfortunately, young hip-hop artists losing their lives to street violence is not as unusual as it should be. Jimmy Wopo, a 21-year-old rapper from Pittsburgh with a strong YouTube following, was killed the same day as XXXTentacion. Nor is this problem new. The last artist prior to XXXTentacion to have a posthumous No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 was Christopher George Latore Wallace, better-known as The Notorious B.I.G; his track “Mo Money Mo Problems” reached the top spot in 1997 shortly after his death in a drive-by shooting.

Hip-hop artists, especially, can attract negative attention due to their lyrics and the lifestyles they portray. This attention can sometimes translate to streaming, album sales and fan engagement, but it can also make them targets. Artists must beware of robbers, those jealous of their fame and fortune, and “clout chasers” – people who strategically associate themselves with celebrities to try to increase their own fame. Clout chasers may attempt to do this by implying that they are friendly or close to an artist, but they can just as easily pursue their ends by hurting or belittling an artist and then bragging about it on social media. Those who attempt to use others’ fame for their own ends are nothing new, but the internet has created new incentives for this behavior, with sadly predictable results.

Hip-hop artist Dimitri Leslie Roger, who performs as Rich the Kid, often flaunts his wealth and success on social media. He was recently the victim of a home invasion, which left him hospitalized. Regardless of the content of their social media accounts, no one deserves to be robbed, assaulted or worse. But musical artists – in all genres, but maybe especially hip-hop – should be aware that their lives may include hazards created or increased by their fame.

It is easy to avoid estate planning, no matter who you are. After all, few people relish contemplating their own death. After Prince’s sudden death in 2016, my colleague Ben Sullivan discussed the messy legal situation he left behind due to his lack of a will or other estate plans, illustrating that even an older, established star can put off such decisions to unfortunate effect. The typical artist in his or her 20s is even less likely to focus on the issue.

But recording artists should take the time, with the help of an attorney, to develop an estate plan that will ensure their assets and future income generated by their music catalog will go to their intended loved ones. If you die without estate planning documents, state law will determine how to dispose of both. Not only could the court award the assets to someone different than you would choose, but your whole estate will go through a highly public probate process that your loved ones would almost certainly rather avoid.

Every artist’s estate plan will look different, depending on his or her goals, assets and level of fame. But there are a few tools that musicians may find particularly useful:

A revocable trust. Assets in a trust avoid probate, so transferring most assets to a trust during your lifetime can be a useful way to avoid public scrutiny that you or your loved ones might prefer to avoid. Using a trust can also save your estate money by minimizing court costs and attorneys’ fees associated with estate administration, meaning more assets will remain for your beneficiaries. In order for the trust to work properly, you must transfer the title of your assets into the trust’s name. During your lifetime, you can serve as trustee; you can also name a successor trustee to fill the role in case you become incapacitated or in the event of your death. A trust allows for the orderly management of your assets, copyrights, and the posthumous use of your name and likeness.

Many musical artists also find it useful to form loan-out companies. These business entities shield artists from personal liability and allow them to receive income from their work while also protecting their intellectual property. In combination with a trust or on its own, a loan-out company can continue operating in the event of your death or incapacity, creating continuity for your heirs.

A will. The foundation of any good estate plan is a legal will. Recording artists who have established revocable trusts may want to especially consider a “pour-over” will, which names the trust as the beneficiary. This transfers any property that may have remained in your name during your lifetime into your trust at your death. Depending on state law, a pour-over will may or may not let you entirely avoid probate, but it will put the dispersal of your assets and intellectual property into your trustee’s hands.

Life insurance. Everyone’s life insurance needs will be unique, but artists may want to particularly consider transferring policies into an irrevocable life insurance trust. The trust can then take out any future policies, which will exclude the value of the death benefits from your overall estate, avoiding potential exposure to estate tax.

Other documents you may want to consider include: a springing durable power of attorney, which allows a designated person to make financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated; a health care proxy, which allows a designated person to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to make them yourself; and a living will, which informs physicians about your preferences regarding end-of-life medical care. In addition to an estate planning attorney, you should also involve your business manager or financial adviser in your plans. And don’t forget to tell beneficiaries of your plans in advance.

Finally, young artists should be especially mindful to revisit their plans on a regular basis. If you first create your plan in your 20s, you can expect to pass a variety of milestones in your career and your personal life in short order, potentially including new levels of professional success, marriage, homeownership or children. All of these can be important reasons to update your plans.

We will never know what future musical contributions XXXTentacion might have made. But his death, like any untimely death, serves as a reminder that we can never be sure what the future holds – and that it is never too early to create a plan to ensure your work benefits the people you choose.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to include information about XXXTentation’s will that became public after the original version's publication.

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