Former Zappos CEO Died in November Without a Will. Here's Why That Makes Things Extremely Complicated.
Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos, died at 46 due to smoke inhalation from a house fire over the Thanksgiving holiday. Several months prior, Hsieh retired from his position as CEO of Zappos with an estimated net worth of $840 million.1 Since his death, his family has determined he died intestate, meaning he had no will. In response, his family has filed for access to the former CEO’s accounts and assets.2
Earlier this year, “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman lost his battle with colon cancer - Boseman also died intestate. His wife has since had to file paperwork in probate court to gain access to his estate, which has an estimated value of about $938,500.3
The moral of the story? No one, no matter how much they have, is immune to an untimely death. And while you may not have a net worth of $840 million, your assets are still significant and require proper planning. Estate Planning for Georgia residents is getting cheaper and easier. That said, it is a subject that most would rather not deal with.
In simple terms, if you die without a will, the state will essentially make one for you. This means your estate passes through something called intestate succession. The purpose of intestate succession is to have one’s assets passed on to their heirs as they (meaning a normal, reasonable person) likely would have wanted. This, of course, requires assumptions on the behalf of the state that may not always be accurate.
Each state will differ in how intestate succession proceeds, but it’s common that one’s close relatives would be granted assets first. Close relatives could include a surviving spouse, descendants (children or grandchildren), parents, siblings, nephews and nieces, grandparents, etc. Here in Georgia, if you have a spouse and children, property is typically shared equally. That said, the share of the spouse cannot be less than 1/3. If you only have either a spouse or children, that entity would get everything. If you have neither, extended family regardless of how remote will receive the property.
Who Should Have a Will....or maybe a Trust?
Only 44 percent of Americans have a will. While that number alone is troubling enough, here’s the kicker: that number has actually declined in recent years. In 2005, around 51 percent of Americans reported having a will.1 It should come as no surprise, however, that the majority of will-holders were older Americans. And while that’s understandable, the hard truth is - anyone can die at any age. Remember - both Hsieh and Boseman were only in their forties when they passed earlier this year.
Whether it’s a couple thousand or a couple million in the bank, everybody should have a will. A will lets others know how you would like your belongings cared for and distributed after your passing. Without one, there’s a much higher chance of your assets ending up in the hands of those you may not have wanted to - and cost your surviving loved one's unnecessary time, hassle and legal fees.
Depending on the type of assets you own, an even better solution for many is creating a family trust. As technology has improved, the cost of creating documents which were once reserved for the wealthy, are available to everyone. With probate in many States taking months if not years, would you not want your home to go immediately to a loved one instead of waiting on the lengthy as well as costly probate process?
What Happens When You Die Without a Will?
While proportionately more high-net-worth people have wills than those with low-to-moderate income levels, that doesn’t mean millionaires and billionaires are always prepared. High-profile high-earners like Aretha Franklin, Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Pablo Picasso all died without a proper will in place.4 For many, this left their heirs and their estates tangled up in years of costly and unnecessary legal battles.
Money aside, the fights that ensue for a passed love one’s estate can be messy and scarring. A lack of proper planning can leave family ties permanently severed - especially so for those battling over a significant amount of assets.
Leaving this world with a proper will in place is a final, and important, gift you can give your loved ones. It avoids long legal battles, exorbitant fees and unnecessary headaches - all things no grieving family wants to deal with. If you haven’t already, talk with your financial professional about the future of your estate. They may be able to help you directly or refer you to an estate attorney who can begin the drafting process. If you have any questions on Estate Planning or any topic of living successfully in retirement, please reach out to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roy Larsen is a Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner and Fee Only Wealth Manager who resides outside of Atlanta, Georgia.