The Prime of Life
Nobody expects the unexpected. That truism was very apparent in Heath Ledgers death on January 28, 2008. The 28 year old actor died of an accidental overdose from the interaction of prescription medications. Ledger perhaps was best known for his Academy Award-nominated role in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain.
Ledger died with a will prepared in 2003 that left everything to his parents and siblings. After the preparation of the will, he met Michelle Williams and together they had a daughter, Matilda Rose. New York law provides for unintentionally omitted after-born children, sometimes called “pretermitted heirs.” Under New York law, Matilda Rose will receive the same portion of Ledgers estate as
if he died without a will all of it. There is no similar rule for unmarried partners. So, regardless of the possible unexpressed intent Ledger may have had, Williams will not receive from his estate.
The funds for Matilda Roses benefit will be managed by a court-appointed guardian for her safekeeping until she is 18. We will never know whether Ledger would have wanted everything to go to Matilda Rose. He may have wanted a portion to go to Williams, or his parents or siblings. But it is unlikely that he intended his estate to be under court supervision or administration until 2023, when his daughter turns 18.
An updated estate plan including a trust would have solved these problems simply. He could have addressed what portion of his assets should go to Matilda Rose and what portion, if any, should go to Williams, his parents, and his siblings. Furthermore, he could have kept the money in trust for Matilda Rose until whatever age he thought was appropriate, naming a trustee of his choosing to manage the money in the interim. This would have avoided court administration.
Further, after death, a will must be filed in a public proceeding. Heaths will is free for all to see by going down to the New York County Surrogates Court in Manhattan. A trust is a private document and can be kept from the prying eyes of paparazzi, a benefit for someone as private as Heath.
Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “Nothing endures but change.” That is still true. Our lives and priorities are ever in flux. As your family and financial circumstances change, be sure that your estate plan reflects your current wishes. A qualified estate planning attorney can help you make sure your plan accomplishes your current goals and remains private.