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What Can Jim Morrison’s Simple Will Teach Us About Estate Planning?

It’s a bit of ancient history, but Jim Morrison’s will highlights a misunderstanding in estate planning that is still common today—what happens to the balance of a bequest when the beneficiary dies. The Doors lead singer’s will provided that his entire estate would pass to his girlfriend Pamela Courson, provided she survived him by three months. If she didn’t, then his property would instead pass to his brother and sister. Well, his girlfriend did survive Morrison by three months, but by less than three years. And when she died in 1974, Morrison’s property all passed to the girlfriend’s parents–- not to his parents or brother and sister.


Maybe this was an intentional result, but not likely. Most likely, it was based on a misunderstanding or was simply accepted as one of the potential pitfalls of a “simple” will. Some who do “simple” wills believe that when they name a primary and secondary beneficiary, the secondary beneficiary will receive the property when the primary beneficiary dies. For example, in the Morrison will case, many would assume that when the girlfriend dies, that Morrison’s property would pass to his brother and sister. But this would only have happened if the Courson herself created a will to state this (and not change it after Morrison’s death) or if Morrison had used a trust, for Courson’s benefit during her life, and then for his brother and sister.

When a beneficiary of a “simple” will survives the person who created the will, the property becomes the beneficiary’s—period. The beneficiary then can leave the property to anyone, without regard for the other beneficiaries named in the will (or the wishes of the person who left them the property). This not only has implications for rock stars, who likely care little for the humdrum practice of estate planning, but for many everyday situations – such as families with second marriages.

Without careful planning, couple on their second marriage with children from a prior one could end up passing all of couple’s property to the children of only one spouse, leaving the children of the other spouse out.  Or, in another example, if a person leaves property to a child who is on a second marriage, a “simple” will could result in all the property going to the second wife, leaving the person’s grandchildren out of the picture.

There a many other examples of estate planning that could result in an unfortunate legacy. The key is to be mindful of the “what-ifs” when creating a plan. A key part of this planning is not just asking the question of where the property goes if my primary beneficiary does not survive me, but also where it goes if he or she does.

Trusts can often be used to prevent unintended results, such as the surprising eventual owners of Jim Morrison’s estate.

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