EDITORIAL: Without a will

Recently, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died and the world mourned the loss of a legend.  The impact that her music and her life had on our global society is immeasurable. She was a pioneer in civil rights and women’s right.  In fact, it could be said that she was a pioneer in life itself.  And while we can speak of the impact of her life with a large amount of joy, there is a lesson to be learned from her passing and the impact of dying without a will. That is right, Aretha Franklin died without leaving guidance on how her US$ 80 millon net worth estate is to be handled.

It is hard to believe that an international icon that is surrounded by agents, managers, financial advisors and all manners of people in the business side of her life, could pass without leaving a will.  It is even more difficult to believe because her estate will continue to generate significant revenue long after her death. 

There are a lot of reasons why people do not take care of their wills.  Probably the number one reason is procrastination.  And in the Caribbean, we have our fair share of that. Death is usually considered a long ways away and wills remind us that the end is coming, so we want to put off that eventuality for as long as possible.  Some people even think that writing a will tempts fate and draws you closer to death.  Whether it is you cannot decide who gets what, or you don’t want to decide, it is really your last responsibility to clear things up so that others do not fight to determine what is “theirs.”

Aretha Franklin is just one of many celebrities who have died without a will.

She joins the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and the legendary Bob Marley.  But this is not a history lesson on celebrities, but rather an opportunity to learn from their mistakes because there are many people in the Caribbean who leave this earth without a will.  Some will say that more do than don’t, but we have no statistics to back that up.  That said, there are probably few among us who do not have a story of a family divided because of the lack of a will and we, as a community, need to change the mindset that everything will work out once we pass.

We need only look at what occurred and continues to occur following the passing of Brother Bob.  Over 35 years have passed since Marley died of cancer in 1981 and there are still battles in the courts as to who gets what.

Since he died without a will, Jamaican law called for his estate to be divided equally among his wife and 11 children. That meant that each would get less than 10 percent of his assets; including his wife, Rita.  One of the key problems in the settlement of the estate was a ‘rights issue’ – who controlled the rights to the Bob Marley ‘brand,’which included rights to his music, his name and his likeness? While normal assets, such as real estate, have a fairly defined value at the time of death and may appreciate over time based on the conditions of the markets, the Bob Marley brand has a long life and significant revenue attached.  

Things get even crazier and out of hand when half-siblings and outside children step forward to make claims on the estate.  Not too long ago, Marley’s family aggressively defended their rights to the Marley brand and sued Marley’s half-brother, Richard Booker, for giving Jamaican tours and coordinating music festivals in his brother’s name.  It was an ugly affair that gained international attention but luckily it was finally settled out of court.

All of this points to the need for a will.  It is unfair for a person to pass from this earth and leave a potential war to erupt.  Families are often torn apart because of feelings of entitlement and just basic greed.  Absurd arguments about who was loved more or who was promised what, drive irreconcilable wedges between family members and loved ones – all because there was no will.

None of this is to say that a will gives blanket protection or guarantees against this type of behavior, but it certainly lessens the risks.  Under normal circumstances, it is hard to debate a well-drafted will that is executed when a person is in good health and known to be of sound mind.  And while greed is one of the vultures of death, a will can help protect loved ones from the vultures that circle and prey on the estate’s carcass. 

            We recognise that this is not a pleasant topic because the reality is, no one wants to think of the finality of death. But death is not really final.  It is for the dearly departed, and life continues for family and friends left behind.  And in all fairness, those that depart should not leave a mess for those who remain to clean up.  So, do everyone a favour and think about how you want to be remembered. Put at the top of the list, how you want your material possessions to be distributed.  It is all part of your legacy.

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