Published by Ask General Counsel on InsideNova, 9/21/2022
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In this issue of Ask General Counsel, we discuss another lesson to be learned through celebrity estate mistakes.
On Aug. 11, actress Anne Heche died unexpectedly at age 53 without a will or trust. She was taken off life support after only 48 hours following an accident where her car crashed into a home. Just one month after her death, three legal actions are pending involving her estate. The conflict is between Anne’s oldest son, Homer Heche Laffoon, and Anne’s long-time ex-boyfriend, James Tupper. Tupper is also the father and legal guardian of her younger son, Atlas. Here is how estate battle breaks down:
Heche’s older son, Homer (age 20), petitioned the court seeking to be appointed as administrator of his mother’s estate because she died without a will (dying intestate). For decedents who owned real property or other assets (i.e., bank accounts or personal collections), the court opens an estate and assigns a personal representative (executor) to administer the estate.
Estate administration includes distributing assets to beneficiaries. Because the actress was unmarried, her adult son’s petition appears to be on solid legal ground as the only adult surviving child. Anne’s younger son, Atlas Tupper, is still a minor at age 13.
However, at age 20, the court may question Laffoon’s financial maturity to manage what may be a complex estate with potential residual value related to his mother’s acting career. Tupper, Anne’s former co-star, ex-boyfriend and father of her younger son, objects to Homer’s appointment. He cites Homer’s lack of financial ability, unemployment, and claims he was estranged from his mother at the time of her death.
Minor’s Best Interests
Homer Laffoon also filed a petition seeking the appointment of a neutral third party as guardian ad litem for Atlas, his younger half-brother. A guardian ad litem is also known as a “child’s best interest attorney” who advocates and makes decisions on behalf of a minor in a legal action. Practically speaking, upon his mother’s passing, Atlas’ father, Tupper, is his sole legal guardian. As such, he would manage any potential inheritance his son receives from his mother’s estate.
However, whether Anne would have wanted Tupper to manage the inheritance is not clear as they separated over four years ago. Therefore, the court will also need to decide whether Atlas’ father can be trusted to protect his son’s financial interests. Clearly, Heche’s older son, Homer, believes that a court-appointed guardian would be better.
Email as a Will
Anne’s ex-boyfriend also asked to court to appoint him instead of Homer as administrator of her estate. Tupper relied upon an email he alleges Anne sent him on January 25, 2011, with the subject line “Will.” In that email, she allegedly said her assets should go to Tupper to raise her boys on her behalf. He claims Anne wanted each son to receive their half of her assets at age 25 – delaying Homer’s expected inheritance for five years.
Historically, handwritten (holographic) wills have been accepted by courts on a case-by-case basis. Whether an email can be considered a valid will is unsettled law, and the requirements vary from state to state. At a minimum, the court may decide whether Anne’s email directions can be evidence of Heche’s intentions for her sons’ inheritance. However, the court may also decide whether the email, if authenticated, could constitute the actress’ last will and testament.
Don’t Make the Same Mistake – Plan Ahead
As this celebrity debacle demonstrates, basic estate planning, whether though a will or a living revocable trust, can avoid court battles and family conflict, and ensure that a decedent’s wishes are followed.
At the law firm of General Counsel, P.C., our Estate Planning Team, led by attorney Ann-Marie Murzin, can create estate plans to avoid family conflicts and help you plan for the future. Contact us today at (571) 396-8460, or email email@example.com, to have a conversation about how we can help your family!