A colleague of mine previously blogged about the importance of taking care of business so that you don’t leave a mess for your family and the courts, using the late famous musician, Prince, as an example for failing to plan for death. Since Prince’s passing in April 2016, no will has surfaced and the legal issues have continued to emerge, the latest, among them, being the interplay between probate and parentage laws. With Prince’s complicated and extensive family history and relatives, the courts are faced with the challenge of determining among whom the late superstar’s fortune is to be divided.
When a wealthy icon, like Prince, dies without a will, it is no wonder that a long list of purported heirs surfaces. Prince died leaving no spouse, children or surviving parents. The closest and likely heirs are his full sister and five half-siblings. But that’s not the end of the story. An alleged niece, nephew and grandniece are also claiming that they are heirs to Prince even though they are not blood relatives. In Minnesota, there are circumstances in which someone can be considered a parent based on having a familial relationship with a child, such as informally raising a non-biological child as their own. The waters seem to have become further muddied for the courts of Minnesota.
As a practitioner in Ontario, I am not familiar with the law in Minnesota and do not intend to comment on the law of intestate succession as it applies there. In Ontario, if you die without a valid will (intestate), the Succession Law Reform Act sets out a scheme of distribution of your estate. Where there is no spouse, issue (children or other lineal descendants) or parent surviving, the surviving brothers and sisters inherit equally, with the share of any predeceased sibling who leaves children him or her surviving being distributed among his or her children equally. The law is unclear on the treatment of half-siblings, but case law suggests that they may be treated the same as full siblings. Where there is no spouse, issue, parent or siblings surviving, the surviving nephews and nieces inherit equally.
It should be noted that children born outside of marriage are treated the same as children born inside marriage, legally adopted children are treated as if they were born to the adoptive parent(s), and step-children do not automatically fall within the definition of children. A parent is a biological parent for intestate succession purposes.
When you fail to plan for death, you risk leaving a host of issues for your loved ones as well as the distribution of your estate in the hands of the courts. Prince’s estate is a prime example of, especially with the ‘modern family’, the importance of properly documenting how and to whom your estate should be distributed. Although the laws in Minnesota may be different than in Ontario, the takeaway is the same: plan for your death so you can avoid leaving a mess for your family and the courts.