On April 6th, 93-year-old actor Mickey Rooney died of natural causes and left family members fighting over his assets. Perhaps one of the most shocking things about this family feud is that they’re fighting over pennies: $18,000 is the net worth of Rooney’s estate.
Although the actor appeared in hundreds of films and was Hollywood’s top-grossing star from 1938 to 1941, a long history of gambling, alcohol abuse, and a series of failed marriages left little for members of his large family to inherit. However, that hasn’t stopped the legal battle between living relatives. Rooney’s biological children have filed a suit contesting the actor’s will, claiming that he was under the undue influence of his stepson and sole beneficiary, Mark Aber, when he wrote it. Meanwhile, Rooney’s estranged wife, Jan Rooney, has filed a separate suit claiming that the will “blatantly misquotes the terms of the settlement agreement” that the couple had previously reached.
It’s unfortunate that these disputes have arisen from the estate of a much-loved entertainer, but Mickey Rooney’s case does highlight several important probate lessons that may be useful to anyone doing their own estate planning.
5 Estate Planning Lessons to Be Learned from Mickey Rooney’s Probate
1. Take inventory of all assets. While Rooney only left $18,000 in his estate, he also left an Oscar, several Emmys, and a collection of memorabilia. On top of that, his family’s lawsuits address his royalty and likeness rights, which will produce revenue over time. You may not have to worry about likeness rights if you’re not a famous entertainer, but you should make sure you’re keeping track of all your assets—not just the money in your bank accounts, but your home, vehicles, any land you own, and more.
2. Name a neutral party as your personal representative. As we can see in Rooney’s case, disputes between family members can significantly slow the probate process and even lead to lawsuits. If you know that your family dynamics could lead to messy feuds, consider choosing a neutral third party to be your estate’s personal representative.
3. Divide assets equally between children. If you have children, divide your assets as equally as possible between them to avoid resentment between siblings. If you have a good reason for wanting to distribute your estate differently (maybe a certain asset has sentimental value to one child, for example), write up a clear and concise explanation so that your children will better understand the decision you made.
4. Closely follow state requirements for will and testament. In order to keep your will from being invalidated, make sure you fully understand your state’s laws for making a will. For example, in Florida your will won’t be valid unless you sign it in front of two witnesses and then have those witnesses sign as well.
5. Get together with an estate planning team. Although you may not possess control over your family dynamics or be able to eliminate feuds over money, you can make the process as straightforward as possible by working with estate experts such as an attorney, a tax professional, and a financial advisor, each having a well-defined role. A tax professional can help you minimize the income tax that your beneficiaries will have to pay, a financial advisor can help you design an investment portfolio for your assets, and an estate planning or probate attorney can help you set up your will and ensure it is in compliance with state and federal requirements.
Whether you’re leaving behind a small or large inheritance, take the time to put your affairs in order now to reduce the likelihood of emotional turmoil and family disputes later on.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.