For estate planners, the death of a celebrity is an opportunity to get a glimpse into the estate planning of the rich and famous. Apart from the magnitude of dollar figures involved, however, the basic concepts are the same whether you’re David Bowie or Joe Blow. In the past few days, details of David Bowie’s Will and estate have become public. So what can the average person take away from Bowie’s Will and estate?
To begin, many of you must be wondering how the contents of Bowie’s Will could become public. Isn’t a Will a private document? Were the contents leaked to the press? The answer is that Bowie’s Will became public record once it was submitted to the New York probate Court. The same is true in Ontario; once a Will is submitted for probate (properly called an Application for Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee), the document becomes public.
It is interesting that Bowie’s Will actually doesn’t mention the name “David Bowie” at all – Bowie was born “David Robert Jones”, and never legally changed his name. It is important that your Will and other estate planning documents use your legal name. If you have any assets registered under an assumed name (e.g., your name is John Thomas Smith but you go by Thomas Smith and your bank account is registered under Thomas Smith), you should include a note to this effect in your Will so that there is no confusion when the estate is being administered.
Bowie’s Will made some specific bequests: he left his SoHo penthouse apartment to his widow; $2 million to his long-time personal assistant; and $1 million to one of his kids’ nannies.
Bowie also left specific burial directions. He stated that he wanted his body to be shipped to Bali and to be cremated there “in accordance with the Buddhist rituals of Bali.” Bowie also stated that if it was not possible for his body to be cremated in Bali, he nevertheless wanted his ashes to be scattered there.
In Ontario, funeral or burial directives made in a Will are not binding. Ultimately, the Estate Trustee (executor) has authority over the deceased’s body. Because the Will is often not reviewed until weeks have passed after death, it is important to discuss your funeral wishes with your named Estate Trustee during your life. If you leave specific wishes in your Will but don’t tell your Estate Trustee about them, your wishes may not be discovered until it’s too late.
It remains to be seen whether Bowie’s estate will become the subject of a bitter dispute (see Robin Williams’ estate, for example), but by having a Will, Bowie laid the groundwork for his wishes to be honoured.