Much of the world was shocked to find out that, on Aug. 28, 2020, Chadwick Boseman, the 43-year-old star of “Black Panther,” died of colon cancer. Though he was diagnosed four years earlier and starred in some of the biggest films in recent years while undergoing chemotherapy, Boseman kept his illness private.
I was even more surprised when I recently found out that Boseman died without a will. His wife of less than a year, Taylor Simone Ledward, filed probate documents in California last week. (Probate – the judicial process of disposing of a deceased individual’s property – is public by design.) Ledward asked to be named administrator with limited authority over her husband’s estate. The probate documents also named Boseman’s parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman, as surviving relatives; reports have not mentioned any inclusion of Boseman’s two brothers. The filings estimate the value of Boseman’s estate at $938,500. This figure most likely only accounts for assets that must pass through probate and excludes assets such as those held in trusts or certain types of jointly owned property.
It seems odd that a man with considerable assets, and years between a potentially terminal diagnosis and his death, would not have prepared a will. It is possible that, as some outlets have reported, he believed he would recover until shortly before his death. Regardless, Boseman is not the only celebrity in recent years to die without a valid estate plan. Prince famously died intestate in 2016, triggering complicated court proceedings and family issues that have still not been resolved as of this writing. Aretha Franklin died in 2018 without having submitted a will to her attorneys. Her family expected her estate would be split between her four sons. Then two handwritten documents detailing how Franklin wanted her estate to be handled were discovered in her home, complicating the process and causing in-fighting among her descendants. Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen left the ownership of his franchise in trust before he died, but unclear language in the trust documents has caused bitter battles within his family. There is still no clear path to ownership of the team a year and a half after his death. Jimi Hendrix’s untimely death at 27 without an estate plan led to a legal battle that spanned more than 30 years.
Boseman may have believed his marriage to Ledward in 2020 was enough preparation if he planned to leave her the majority of his assets. According to California law, if a deceased person with no will is survived by a spouse and no children, the spouse inherits the entirety of the probate estate. Had Boseman died without a will before wedding Ledward, California courts would have passed his probate assets to his parents under the state’s law.
Still, even if Boseman wanted to leave most of his assets to Ledward, creating a will with the help of an estate planning attorney would have removed any doubt about his intentions. An attorney could have helped him determine the appropriate executor for his estate in advance. And a well-constructed estate plan could have allowed more of his assets to pass outside the probate process, saving time and preserving his heirs’ privacy.
Us Weekly’s column “Stars – They’re Just Like Us” is often silly. But when it comes to inadequate estate planning, the title unfortunately proves true. It isn’t only celebrities who fail to create wills. Most regular Americans also neglect to develop an estate plan, and the problem is getting worse. In 2016, a Gallup poll found that only 44% of Americans reported having a will, a decrease from the previous poll in 2005. That study found that among Boseman’s cohort – adults age 30 to 49 – the figure was only 35%. This is especially concerning because many adults in this age range have dependents. If someone relies on you for support, it is critical to make sure you know how they will live if something were to happen to you. If you have children, it is paramount to have a guardianship plan in place.
Death is not something most people are keen to discuss, especially their own. But it is important to have frank discussions with family members about your wishes, even though such conversations may be uncomfortable. It is better to have these unpleasant discussions in advance, when you are able to identify any potential pitfalls. If you die without a plan, or without the legal documents in place to support it, the court may decide to handle your estate in a manner you would not want. Estate planning for the typical American is not expensive, and the benefit of having peace of mind that your family will be cared for far outweighs the cost. I’ve outlined the steps to creating a plan, and which documents you will need, in our firm’s upcoming book, The High Achiever’s Guide to Wealth (available Oct. 30).
Fans will remember Chadwick Boseman’s performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as his critically acclaimed roles as Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” and Jackie Robinson in “42,” for years to come. The revelation that he was undergoing treatment for colon cancer while emerging as one of the greatest movie stars in recent years makes his courage remarkable. His philanthropy and visits to child cancer wards in the years leading up to his death will resonate with his fans forever. He was a role model for how to handle both fame and illness with equal grace.
We can learn something else from his death as well: Everyone needs to develop an estate plan, regardless of their income level or fame. We need to have the difficult conversations with our families now, so we know they will be protected in the future. If you don’t have a will or other estate planning documents in place, I urge you to put it at the top of your priority list. The time you spend will save your family a lot of headache, and heartache, when facing a future without you.