Everyone remembers the tragic death of Heath Ledger in 2008 from an accidental overdose at
the young age of 28. His acting as the joker in “The Dark Knight” is unparalleled, even by the
1989 rendition by Jack Nicholson. My wife remembers and loves him best in “10 Things I Hate
About You.” Personally, I have watched “A Knights Tale” and “Lords of Dogtown” literally
100s of times.
While he is best known for his Oscar and Academy Award winning acting, most people did not know the controversy that arose following his demise regarding his estate. In 2003, during his rise to fame, Heath Ledger prepared a Last Will and Testament declaring that he was domiciled in Australia. At the time, he was unmarried, and he had no children. Therefore, in the event of his demise, Heath bequeathed his entire estate to his parents and his siblings, to be divided equally. Had he not prepared an estate plan, he would have died intestate, and his estate would have passed completely to his parents.
Now, I- like most of you- understand that life happens. And when life happens, many things can fall to the wayside. Most people after they create an estate plan never bother to revisit it.
Regardless of my personal plea with every client to follow up with me every two to five years,
very few take me up on the offer. I do not charge for consultations, nor do I charge to simply
review an estate plan.
Personally, as an experienced estate planning and litigation attorney, I always contemplate
unborn children and grandchildren when I prepare estate plans for clients, even where it may be
unlikely or far into the future. Why? Because so many people prepare an estate plan and
completely forget about it. We are human and love to live life in the present. Unfortunately, it is
my job to look into the future and protect a client’s legacy and make sure it is distributed
according to the client’s wishes.
Forgetting about one’s estate plan is likely what happened to Heath. In 2005, Heath and his then
partner Michelle Williams, best known for her time on Dawson’s Creek, gave birth to their
daughter Matilda. Heath died a little over two years later.
At the time of Heath Ledger’s death in 2008, he never revisited and amended his estate plan to
provide for Matilda.
Technically, pursuant to Heath’s estate plan, the estate was to be divided equally between his
parents and siblings. As his will was probated in Australia, there were obvious issues that arose
during the administration that could have resulted in Matilda being left out. This would likely not
have been Heath’s wishes. Eventually, Heath’s parents and siblings decided to leave the entire
estate, valued at over 20 million, to Matilda, to be held in trust for her benefit.
While I cannot comment on the law in Australia, there could have been a very different ending to
this story. In California, there exists several statutes protecting the rights of Omitted Spouses and
Children. Generally, in the event a testamentary instrument such as a will or trust fails to provide
for a child of decedent, born or adopted after the execution of all decedent’s testamentary instruments, the child would be entitled to a portion of the estate as if the decedent had died without having executed any testamentary instrument. See Probate Code § 21620 et seq. For an omitted spouse, the relevant Probate Code § 21610.
While there are exceptions, such as if in the event the decedent 1) intentionally excluded the
omitted heir, which is clear from the testamentary documents, 2) the heir was provided for
outside of the testamentary documents such as beneficiary upon death to accounts or life
insurance proceeds, 3) in the event of a omitted child, the estate is substantially bequeathed to the
parent of the child, or 4) in the event of an omitted spouse there is a valid agreement such as a
While this story ultimately ended up having a happy ending, the outcome could have been very
different and heartbreaking. Estate planning is not just for older people. Unfortunately, and all
too often, younger people pass away. Everyone, old and young should have some type an estate
plan in place to protect their family legacy, no matter how small.
We at Grismer|Patterson, LLP care about our clients and the legacies they leave behind. We offer
free consultations for new estate plans as well as for review of previous estate plans. Many of our
clients elect to schedule an annual check-up, but we recommend reviewing your estate plan with
an attorney at least every three years.
Schedule your free consultation today!