Who Gets the House? Estate-Planning Don'ts From Celebs

Recently we wrote about real estate and divorce. But breakups aren't the only partings that can get messy when it comes to property. Death has a way of sending real estate holdings into the same kind of turmoil.

Should the daughter who moved in with her mother to take care of her be allowed to live in the house after Mom dies? Should the new wife get the home the first family was raised in? What if four siblings inherit a vacation home and all but one want to sell it?

Family dynamics and human nature transcend wealth and fame. The issues of how to pass on your real estate holdings have played out on a public stage, thanks to celebrities like Michael Jackson (whose funeral cortege is pictured above) and Katharine Hepburn. There are lessons to be learned from them.

AOL Real Estate spoke with attorney Danielle Mayoras, co-author of "Trial and Heirs," for advice on how to avoid property-inheritance mistakes.

1. Don't rely on verbal agreements.

Singer Don Ho, according to several of his adult children, made a promise to his estranged first wife on her deathbed that he would let their six children inherit the family's beachfront home in Lanikai, Hawaii. The eight-bedroom house had been in the family for decades and was where his first wife lived until her death. The problem: Ho made his promise verbally, never in writing. He subsequently listed the house for sale, but his adult children reportedly didn't think he was serious, nor did they think anyone would pay the asking price of $10 million, so they took no legal steps to block it.

While the home was still on the market, Ho died of a heart failure. The trust lowered the price on the 17,000-square-foot estate to $6.8 million - at which point all heck broke out among Ho's 10 children, including four from subsequent relationships. The Lanikai house sold for $6.05 million in 2008, but that hasn't stopped the squabbling. About a month ago, six of the adult children were forcibly evicted by the police from Ho's Diamond Head property. Figure the only winners in this ongoing legal battle are the lawyers who are getting richer.

Much of the squabbling would have been eliminated had Ho's alleged verbal promise been put in writing, says Mayoras.

2. Don't just create a trust; fund it too.

As detailed in Mayoras' book, Michael Jackson created a family trust - but he didn't transfer his assets into it. A startling number of trusts are created and then left unfunded, she says. In the case of a home, a new deed must be prepared that transfers ownership of the property from your name into the trust's name, a transfer that must be signed and recorded. "It's like transferring your cash from one pants pocket to the other one," Mayoras says.

Because Jackson never took that step, his family had to go through probate court and expose all his dirty laundry to the public eye. If the trust had been properly funded, probate wouldn't have been necessary - although we suspect Michaelmaniacs would have still found a way to poke their noses into the affairs of the estate.

3. Prove your competency at the time you write your will.

More than one eyebrow was raised when Florida heiress Gail Posner left $3 million in cash and a house worth $8 million to her three dogs. She also left $27 million to her household staff, caregivers and body guards. Much to his chagrin, her only son got just $1 million. The case is in the court system right now and thus far, the son has not been successful in his legal challenge claiming the staff exerted undue influence on his mother, but Posner's mental competency has certainly been called into question.

Bottom line, says Mayoras, "if you are going to do something creative with your assets -- like give an $8 million house to your dogs -- make sure you dot your I's and cross your T's." Specifically, she suggests taking a few extra steps to prove you are of sound mind when you made these decisions. She suggests having a lawyer videotape you reading your will, maybe even explaining your choices. A doctor's letter confirming mental competency can be attached.

4. Expect post-mortem disagreements and address them while you are alive.

Whether you leave your assets to your pet, a la Queen of Mean Leona Helmsley, or to your favorite charity, you can pretty much expect your human children, spouses, former spouses and business partners to wonder why they didn't get more. Even in families that get along, there are frequently disputes about the division of assets after someone dies.

Know what you want to do and spell it out clearly -- which, of course, is often easier said than done.

celeb estate In the case of actress Katharine Hepburn's New York townhouse (pictured), the listing agent recalls being mortified to learn that before putting it on the market, Hepburn's heirs stripped the Turtle Bay Gardens home of all personal possessions and painted the walls white.

"Imagine Katharine Hepburn with white walls," says an incredulous Eileen Robert of the Corcoran Group. All the celebrity premium Robert had hoped to use in marketing was gone. "You had no sense that Hepburn had lived here."

Robert remedied the problem of "where'd Katharine go?" by finding old photos of the elegant actress and blowing them up to life size. She placed them in the rooms where they had been taken - Hepburn in the kitchen, Hepburn at her dressing table, Hepburn writing a letter.

It worked, and the unit sold for around $4 million. The unit is now available for lease at $25,000 a month through Trudy Schlachter of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

See more celebrity real estate.

More on AOL Real Estate:
Find out how to calculate mortgage payments.
Find homes for sale in your area.
Find foreclosures in your area.
Get property tax help from our experts.

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July 08 2011 at 8:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This goes for wills too. Ialready put everything I own in my son's name. They can't fight over anything if it belongs to him, but they can and will if I leave it behind on paper.

May 16 2011 at 9:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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May 16 2011 at 4:29 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Latoya Rutledge

In order to get the money the seller needs from the loan they just created, the seller could sell the monthly note payments to a specialist buyer for a lump sum of cash. If the seller finds someone willing to buy the payments, now they can "have their cake and eat it too".

In summary.

Step one: Use the seller finance option to find unique customers willing to buy the house at a higher price than would have been possible otherwise and complete the real estate transaction quickly.

Step two: Decide on the terms of the deal and create the note.

Step three: If the property seller needs immediate cash to buy another house or for any other reason, their new incoming payment stream can be resold. The person who buys the future payments from the seller will provide the funding to act as a down payment on a new house, and every party involved in the deal comes out smiling.

May 15 2011 at 3:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My house was designed by Katharine's CT home architect, Cordelia Mortimer Eaglesfield. The walls were white when I bought it, and there is evidence that all but the kitchen, had always been white.

May 14 2011 at 10:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


May 14 2011 at 8:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Revocable Living Trust is the necessary part of Estate Planning. You can still count on Probate after you die.
The trick is to keep enough money in liquid assets for yourself and then distribute the remainder to your heirs and assigns after you go.

May 14 2011 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Terry and Mandy

Set up a trust and fund it. That way your wishes will be carried out. New trust laws now include many new provisions for health care, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, co-trustees. Lots of checks and balances so no one gets screwed. And it doesn't have to become public knowledge through probate. I just had my living trust redone to reflect all the new changes. The revised trust is much more specific than the original trust set up years ago.

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