On October 15th, Taylor Simone Ledward, the wife of Chadwick Boseman, filed documents with the Los Angeles probate court seeking to be named administrator of his estate nearly two months after the death of Black Panther star. They were married earlier this year and the marriage gives Ledward the right to any assets held in Boseman’s name at his death.
Boseman died at age 43 on August 28th following a four-year battle with colon cancer and it seems the young actor had no will, based on the court documents. It surprising that the young star never made a will, but he is hardly the first celebrity to do so before their death. Numerous big-name stars like Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix all made the same mistake.
However, unlike these others, it appears to be very likely that Boseman did employ other estate planning tools. Bosman earned a significant amount of money from the quantity of films he stared in and several source estimate that his assets at the time of his death should have been far more than the $939,000-odd listed in the probate documents.
What, then, happened to the rest of Bosman’s wealth? As his death wasn’t a surprise, some commentators have suggested that the bulk of Boseman’s assets passed through private trusts. But if that was the case, why didn’t he also have a will, which is almost always be created alongside trusts?
While we may never know, we can take this opportunity and learn from Boseman’s death and the experience of his wife, Taylor. Becoming more informed about the estate planning process can help you keep your family out of the court process and the public eye.
A role model for millions
In addition to starring as Marvel Studio’s first African-American superhero, Boseman was famous for playing a number of real-life African-American heroes during his career. His most notable roles included portraying baseball great Jackie Robinson in 42, legendary musician James Brown in Get On Up, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall.
Even after being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2016, Boseman continued to work on multiple movies. He was highly protective of his private life and the young star kept his illness a secret from everyone except for a few friends and family members, so his death was a shock not only to his millions of fans, but also his close colleagues.
In fact, he was so quiet about his condition that even Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and Da 5 Bloods director Spike Lee reportedly had no idea Boseman was fighting cancer. Marvel boss Kevin Feige only learned about his diagnosis on the day the actor died.
Boseman and Ledward, a singer who graduated from California State Polytechnic University, started dating in 2015 about a year before his cancer diagnosis. They were engaged in October 2019 and were reportedly married in a secret ceremony a few months before he died. Besides his wife, Boseman leaves behind his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman, and two brothers, Derrick and Kevin Boseman.
A planning blind spot
According to Celebrity Net Worth and other similar sources, Boseman’s total estate was worth much more than that at the time of his death—an estimated $12 million. However, the probate documents only list his estate at about $938,500. Given this large discrepancy, it’s possible that the bulk of the actor’s assets were held in trusts as they aren’t available to the public and would be handled privately through his attorneys.
Since the majority of Boseman’s estate is not subject to probate, he likely did put an extensive estate plan in place. Even so, he left almost $1 million in assets unprotected, which seems to be a glaring blind spot in his plan. This makes us wonder whether or not Boseman was properly informed and educated by his lawyers about his planning decisions before his death. Expensive lawyers or not, it’s a sad fact that many people do not fully understand the planning process and leave their family to deal with the resulting consequences after it’s already too late.
Dying without a will is referred to as intestate and in cases of intestate like Boseman’s, California law governs the distribution of any assets titled in Boseman’s name at the time of his death. So according to succession rules, Ledward, his surviving spouse is entitled to inherit his estate and she also has priority to serve as his estate’s administrator. As such, it’s almost certain the court will grant Ledward’s request she filed October 15th, but that means she will still have to go through probate before she can access those assets.
An alternative possibility, which is total speculation on our part, comes to mind. Perhaps there was a will, maybe even created before the 2020 marriage, and the family all agreed not to file it with the court given the marriage and whatever the family may have known about Boseman’s wishes to benefit Ledward. A further possibility is that the probate was specifically opened up to cut off any future claims against the estate, as once the probate is closed no creditors will ever be able to come after Boseman’s estate in the future.
Trusts with a backup
We would have recommended Boseman place all of his assets in trusts, in either revocable living trusts, irrevocable trusts, or a combination of the two. By doing so, upon his death, those assets would immediately transfer to whomever he named as beneficiaries without the need for court intervention. Moreover, such transfers would happen in private, without Boseman’s assets or his loved one’s being scrutinized in the public eye. Indeed, this is what’s likely happening to the balance of Boseman’s assets that were not listed in court documents.
However, if trusts were used, we would have expected to see a document called a “pour-over will” created alongside Boseman’s trusts. The pour-over will acts as a backup because it’s not practical to put some types of assets, such as vehicles, into a trust and it can be challenging to move every single asset into a trust before you pass away. We always include a pour-over will with the plans we create for our clients.
A traditional will is used on its own to distribute your entire estate to your beneficiaries upon your death, while a pour-over will works in conjunction with a trust so that all assets not held by the trust upon your death are transferred, or “poured,” into your trust through the probate process. Then those assets are distributed to your beneficiaries as spelled out by the trust’s terms.
For example, had Boseman created a pour-over will, the remaining $938,500 worth of assets in his estate would have been transferred into a trust and distributed to his family under the terms he laid out in the trust. The assets in the will still need to go through probate, though, so it should only serve as a backup and not the main vehicle of your asset transfer. You should do your best to transfer, or fund, all of your most valuable assets to the trust while you are still alive.
As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we’ll not only help you create the right trusts to hold your assets, we will also ensure that your assets are properly funded to your trust throughout your lifetime, which is a service few other lawyers offer.
Next week, we’ll continue with part two of this series on the Wills and Trusts planning lessons to learn from Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death.
This article is a service of Levi Alexander, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.
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