I am an artist and for very long did not understand the importance of estate planning. The term itself, I reasoned, was one that belonged in conversations engaged by those who were wealthy and/or aged. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Because I had heard a lot of heartbreaking stories about artists who had not properly planned their estates – Redd Foxx, Sammy Davis, Jr., Katherine Dunham, James Brown – I wanted to ensure I would not be in the same predicament. Some of these artists mentioned did not even have enough money for a proper burial. Others had to step in and take on the task of contributing funds.
I had read intriguing stories about how Joseph Kennedy built his family’s fortune in such a way that generations of Kennedys have been able to live on the interest of his principal. I had no idea how to make it happen, but I knew that I wanted my money to work for me the same way Joseph Kennedy’s money had worked for him.
I even read a story about Pablo Picasso, which detailed his failure to properly plan his estate. When he died, he still owned a great many of his own paintings. Naturally, he would have desired for these works to be divided among his heirs. He still owed taxes when he died in France, so the government took its taxes and allowed Picasso’s children to divide the remainder of his estate.
There were two important lessons in the Picasso anecdote. 1) Always have a will that communicates your wishes. If you do not specify who gets what, it get divided according to someone else’s wishes. If there is nothing in writing, then all of your assets pass through a probate court and your heirs are left to inherit your assets as the state sees fit. What this means is that you always have a will; you just have to decide if it will be the one mandated by the state in which you live or one that you’ve carefully planned yourself. Had Picasso been living in the United States at the time of his death, his heirs would have inherited nothing. This country’s laws supercede any romantic or sympathetic leanings toward famous artists. 2) The Picasso scenario marked the first time I realized an asset does not have to be money. Art itself can be an asset!
In recent months, I have set to work placing my wishes for assets in writing. Estate planning covers how you want to manage and preserve your assets while you are living, as well as your desires for specific healthcare if you become incapacitated and cannot convey your wishes.
While there have been many online sources to help me get started, I have had to think through things like naming an executor who will be in charge of carrying out my wishes; designating the distribution of personal items, like books and music and quilts and photos; and determining which institutions should be approached to house my original manuscripts and personal papers. I should emphasize this is only a beginning. I have learned that a simple will still force your family to go through probate court. A will AND a trust, however, might prevent that. I also know that I need a lawyer to help me prepare for events and scenarios I have not yet imagined.
One of the biggest steps I’ve taken in ensuring my assets and my children are taken care of is to recognize the need for estate planning. I know now that if I spell everything out, there is no doubt about what it is I intended for my belongings.