This weekend, I found myself watching the movie “The Dark Knight”. I love all of the Batman movies, but there is a special place in my heart for this particular movie in the series because Heath Ledger plays an incredible Joker. I love Jack Nicholson, but Heath Ledger really takes the Joker character to a whole new and dark level. His performance was exceptional and certainly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which he received for his role in the movie. If you are one of the few who have not seen the movie, I would highly recommend it.
Unfortunately, Heath Ledger died tragically of an accidental drug overdose at age 28. Until that time in his life, he had amassed quite a sizeable fortune as an actor. While many know the circumstances surrounding his death, few know of the controversy surrounding his Will which occurred after his death.
Due to the growing size of his estate, Heath Ledger had a will done at a young age. At the time that he executed his Last Will and Testament, he was unmarried and had no children. As such, he directed that in the event of his untimely death, his estate was to be divided equally between his parents and his siblings.
This was good planning on his part as executing the Will protected his fortune and directed its distribution in the case of his premature death. If he had died without a Will, his siblings would likely not be able to inherit anything and there might also have been a fight as to who would be in charge of his large estate.
Subsequent to executing his Will, Heath began a relationship with Michelle Williams (who starred in Dawson’s Creek and also worked with Heath on the set of Brokeback Mountain) which resulted in the birth of his daughter Matilda Rosa. Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger were never married and ended their relationship after their daughter was born.
The dark knight begins (so to speak) as Heath never updated his Will to provide for Matilda Rose after her birth. This created issues in the administration of his estate which could have resulted in devastating and unintended consequences. Luckily for him and his daughter, this story has a happy ending.
Heath’s parents and siblings agreed to gift his entire estate to his daughter Matilda Rose. His family members agreed to put his fortune, which was estimated at approximately $20 million, in trust for the sole benefit of Matilda Rose. If not for the agreement of all family members on the moral and ethical thing to do under the circumstances, this story might have had a different ending.
The death of Heath Ledger highlights the danger of not updating your Will for the birth of a young child. Wills are not just for older people. Today, younger individuals need to make sure that they have an estate plan in place to take care of young kids and family members in the case of a catastrophic circumstance.
As experienced attorneys, we have spent a significant amount of time helping younger couples with such planning and, unfortunately, we have also seen what happens when this careful planning does not occur.
Florida has a statute that specifically speaks to the problem presented by the story of Heath Ledger. Fla. Stat. §732.302 addresses the issue of a pretermitted child (the term refers to a child accidentally left out of the will). Under this statute, the will must have been done before the birth of the pretermitted child and it has to appear from the contents of the document that the child was not intentionally omitted. Also, the child will not inherit if the decedent had one or more children when the will was executed and devised substantially all of the estate to the other parent of the pretermitted child and that parent survived the decedent and is entitled to take under the will.
Outside of those two exceptions, the child will inherit an amount equal to what she would have received if there was no will at all. While it is certainly not a foolproof solution, it does provide some sort of relief if the problem of a pretermitted child exists.
So what should we learn from Heath Ledger? Don’t be a joker. Update your will after the birth of a child. If your family experiences a change in circumstance and you are unsure whether your will needs to be updated, please contact our office for a free consultation.