Not all celebrity estates are the same, despite how the 24-hour news media portrays things.

Going back several years, the contrast between the estates of the Playboy model and reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, couldn’t be starker. However, if you just paid attention to the tone and demeanor of the reporters covering both stories, you would think both were a dumpster fire of legal incompetence and complexity.

Anna Nicole Smith

Anna Nicole SmithLet’s start with the disastrous estate of Anna Nicole Smith, whose real name was Vicki Lynn Marshall. In 2007, Anna Nicole Smith died of an overdose in a hotel room. She was a widow to a billionaire in the middle of contesting herself being cut out of her husband’s Will, the mother of a newborn baby girl named Dannielynn, and mother to an adult son Daniel Wayne Smith. Anna Nicole Smith had used an attorney to draft a Last Will and Testament in 2001 that did the following:

  • Named her son Daniel as the sole beneficiary of her estate, and left instructions that her estate be held in trust until he reached appropriate staggered age limits to receive portions of the estate. However, he died of a drug overdose several months earlier.
  • Cut out any spouses, step-children, foster children, and even future born children and their descendants.
  • Failed to name any contingent beneficiaries.

When Anna Nicole Smith died, the media hopped all over the controversies surrounding her estate, including the estate continuing to push for a piece of the billionaire deceased husband’s estate, trying to figure out who the beneficiary of her estate was since her Will’s only beneficiary was dead. Then too, who was the father of Dannielynn since no one was certain. For about a year, the media stuck with the story until the probate judge declared that her daughter Dannielynn was the beneficiary of her estate. While it may seem like an easy issue to settle, it wasn’t. If she had died without a Will, there would be no question that Dannielynn was her heir, but her Will specifically disinherited “future spouses and children.”

In the end, the judge threw out the Will as useless because it named no living beneficiary at all, and relied on the state statutes to determine her “next of kin” which was her daughter. The court also took DNA testing into account when naming a guardian. All the while, everything was in the public eye and readily available because probate is a public court process. Back then, I had downloaded nearly 2,000 pages of filings in this matter. That was only one month of filings. And don’t expect this controversy to go away. Dannielynn is only 13, and there will be a fight over whether or not she should get her inheritance at 18 or have to follow the age restrictions her mother had written into her otherwise useless Will.

Michael Jackson

Michael JacksonNow let’s take a look at Michael Jackson’s estate. If you were paying attention in 2009, it would sound like the estate was an absolute disaster the likes of which we have never seen. In reality, it was just the 24-hour news media and the paparazzi having fits because they couldn’t get any information on his estate. “They’re going to court! Here we see Michael Jackson’s mother Katherine going to court to see who gets control of his money!”

It was all crap.

Michael Jackson had planned his estate using a revocable living trust, so his Last Will and Testament simply said anything going to probate would go to the trust to be distributed. So why was his mother Katherine going to court? To be confirmed as guardian of his children. Why was the media frenzy making it sound like there was a mess? Because they had nothing else to report on. Nothing about going to court had anything to do with money. So how much money was in his estate? We don’t know.

Who were Michael Jackson’s beneficiaries? This, we do know but only because there was such an outcry from the public demanding to know whether or not his wishes were being followed that the trustees decided to release a copy of the trust. First, 20% went to charity, and how that money was given was determined by the three trustees plus Michael’s mother Katherine Jackson, and they were also given the ability to use funds to set up new foundations or charities. After that money came off the top, half went to Michael Jackson’s children equally with appropriate age restrictions so the money could be managed by the trustees. The other half was to be held in trust for the trustees to care for Katherine Jackson for the remainder of her life, and then any leftover funds would go to Michael Jackson’s children.

Well, how much did each of them get? We don’t know. And it’s none of our business because a revocable living trust is kept private.

The estate of Anna Nicole Smith was an abhorrent, chaotic mess that was aired out to the world through the probate court process with all of the financial and other details being open to the public because she used a Last Will and Testament. Michael Jackson’s estate was done the right way through a revocable living trust to maintain privacy, handle things without a court as much as possible, and protecting the people he loved. Which estate would you rather have for your loved ones?