As a Philanthropic Specialist, I enjoy assisting members who are leaving a legacy for animals through an estate gift to PETA. Although everyone’s estate differs, it is in everyone’s best interest to spend time considering and documenting a plan. Below, I have put together a few famous examples that illustrate why even with the best intentions, improperly planned estates can result in excessive court battles and unfulfilled wishes.
Lesson 1: Finalize Your Documents With an Estate Planning Attorney
Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger died with a one-page holographic (handwritten) will, leaving his entire estate to his children. The document did not include common instructions as required by Virginia law. This meant that more than $500,000—money intended for his beneficiaries—was spent petitioning the probate court to fix these errors.
*Review your documents with an attorney to ensure that necessary language is included. Also remember that some states do not uphold handwritten wills as legal documents.
Lesson 2: Incorporate Specific Wishes Into Your Will
Princess Diana’s “letter of wishes” asked her executors to divide at their discretion her personal property among her 17 godchildren, which would have resulted in each child receiving approximately $163,000. However, this document was not legally binding as she did not make reference to it in her properly made will. At the executors’ “discretion,” each godchild was given only a trinket, such as an incomplete tea set.
* Establish clear guidelines for the distribution of personal and other property in your legal documents. This is also true for your charitable intentions.
Lesson 3: Update Your Documents After Life Changes
Actor Heath Ledger wrote a will before his daughter was born that left everything to his parents and siblings. In some states, this meant that his daughter inherited nothing. But New York protects “after-born” children from unintentional disinheritance by viewing the decedent as having died intestate (without a will), which means all assets go to the first line of heirs—children. Therefore, his daughter received everything, while his parents and siblings received nothing.
*It is critical to update your documents after life-changing events, such as marriage and divorce, as there is often no legal protection for your loved ones’ inheritance. Also, always explicitly state in the document if you want to disinherit a possible beneficiary.
These are just a few of the many reasons for properly planning your estate. Please contact an estate planning or elder law attorney to finalize your plans in order to ensure you provide for your philanthropic intentions, your health, and your loved ones.
By Daniella Ramadei, who is a Philanthropic Specialist with the PETA Foundation. Daniella has worked for the PETA Foundation for five years, and was with PETA’s Cruelty Investigation Department before that. She graduated from New York Law School with the intent to end the suffering of animals and lives in California with her rescued companion dog Datona.
PETA’s Augustus Club is a complimentary club honoring those who are leaving a legacy for animals through a planned gift to PETA. There are no fees or charges, and members receive quarterly newsletters containing special features on PETA’s history, PETA’s impact on animal-abusing industries, and profiles of members and animals they’ve saved. Augustus Club members also receive invitations to special events throughout the year.