Larry King’s Death Highlights the Importance of Updating Your Estate Plan for Divorce and Death—Part 1
Legendary TV and radio host, Larry King, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on January 23rd, 2021. Larry was hospitalized in December due to COVID-19, but he’d recently been moved from the ICU to a regular hospital room after making a recovery. However, the famed broadcaster suffered from a number of additional health conditions over the years. He passed away from sepsis that was the result of an unrelated infection.
With a career spanning more than half a century, Larry became the most famous interviewer of his generation as the host of CNN’s Larry King Live, a follow-up to his nationwide call-in radio show, The Larry King Show. Larry retired from CNN in 2010, but up until the very end, he still hosted the streaming video cast “Larry King Now”.
With his success in the media and the fact he continued working long after the age at which most people retire, Larry amassed a fortune estimated to be worth some $50 million. In addition to Larry’s fame as a broadcaster, he also became known for his numerous marriages. Starting at age 19, the media mogul got married a total of eight times to seven different women.
Through his marriages, Larry also had multiple children. He was the father to five children: Chaia King, Larry King Jr., Cannon Edward King, Chance Armstrong King, and Andy King. Larry also had nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren at the time of his death. With so much money, so many spouses, and so many children, it was almost guaranteed there would be some conflict over Larry’s estate following his death.
However, there are three factors are sure to make settling his estate especially troublesome.
First, Larry was in the middle of negotiating a divorce settlement with his current wife, Shawn Southwick King, when he passed away. Second, in October 2019, Larry created a new handwritten will, which stipulated that $2 million of his estate should be equally divided among his five children upon his death. However, the document makes no mention of his seventh wife.
And finally, two of the five children—Andy, 65, and Chaia, 51, —died within weeks of one another in August 2020 and Larry failed to amend his handwritten will to reflect their deaths.
Given Larry’s immense wealth and the fact that his seventh wife claims they worked with Wills and Trusts planning lawyers in the past, it’s likely that he had other Wills and Trusts planning vehicles, such as trusts, in place. However, since trusts are private and their contents generally aren’t made available to the public, we don’t know the full details of Larry’s Will and Trust.
That said, in light of his impending divorce, the existence of the new handwritten will, and the recent death of two of Larry’s children, it’s almost certain that there will be a major court fight. As a matter of fact, Shawn has already announced that she plans to contest the handwritten will.
In the end, the fallout from this legal battle could make Larry famous for another reason. However, nearly all of the impending conflict over Larry’s estate could have been avoided with proper Wills and Trusts planning. Here we’ll outline several planning lessons we can learn from Larry’s death.
Till Death Do Us Part
The first factor that makes Larry’s case so contentious is his last divorce. In August 2019, Larry filed for divorce from his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick King. As with most divorces, it can take some time for the two parties to reach a final settlement arrangement. Shawn and Larry were apparently still negotiating their divorce settlement when he died in January 2021.
According to The Wealth Advisor, at the time of his death, Larry was paying Shawn spousal support. However, given that Larry died before the divorce was finalized, Shawn could inherit far more than that. This is true in spite of the existence of Larry’s new will or even prior Wills and Trusts.
Shawn stands to inherit so much is because California is a community-property state. Under California’s community-property laws, unless there was a prenuptial agreement or post-nuptial agreement stating otherwise, Shawn is entitled to 50% of any marital assets acquired during marriage, regardless of what Larry’s Will and Trust.
Given that the couple was married for more than two decades, Shawn’s ultimate inheritance will likely far exceed the $1 million per year she was seeking in the divorce settlement. This is something Larry likely would have wanted to avoid. Additionally, given that Shawn is planning to contest Larry’s new will in court, Larry’s surviving children are now facing the prospect of a costly legal battle.
This brings us to our first Wills and Trusts planning lesson we can learn from Larry’s situation.
Lesson #1: Update your Will and Trust as soon as divorce is inevitable.
Although Larry attempted to do the right thing by creating the new will, he should have taken the time to work with legal counsel to properly update his plan once he knew he was getting divorced. As we pointed out in a prior blog post about Wills and Trusts planning and divorce, it’s imperative that you create new planning documents as soon as possible after you realize that a divorce is imminent.
Even though California is one of the few states where you can change your will before your divorce is final, many states do not allow you are not legally allowed to change your will or trust document once divorce proceedings has been filed. To this end, once you know divorce is on the horizon, you need to act immediately and amend your Will and Trust.
When creating a new will or trust, you should rethink how you want your assets divided upon your death. This most likely means naming new beneficiaries. Because most married couples name each other as their executor and/or trustee of their estate, it’s also important to name a new person to fill these roles as well.
As we saw in Larry’s case, it’s important to keep in mind that some states have community-property laws that entitle your surviving spouse to a certain percentage of the marital estate upon your death. Due to this. if you die before the divorce is final, you probably won’t be able to entirely disinherit your surviving spouse in your will or trust. However, you can amend your plan to ensure the proper individuals inherit the remaining percentage of your estate should you pass away while your divorce is still ongoing.
Had Larry worked with his Wills and Trusts planning lawyer to draft his new will, he could have created a much more robust will would have stipulated exactly how he wanted his share of the marital assets divided among his children upon his death. He also could have prevented a number of conflicts inherent with do-it-yourself planning. This brings us to our second planning lesson to be learned from Larry’s estate.
Lesson #2: Always work with an experienced Wills and Trusts planning lawyer when creating or updating your planning documents, especially if you have a blended family.
While it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents, this is exponentially true when you have a blended family. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there’s an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests.
The risk for conflict is significantly increased if you are seeking to disinherit a heir. By creating your own will, you won’t be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise. Had Larry enlisted the help of an experienced Wills and Trusts planning lawyer to create his new will, he could have built in provisions that would have made it unlikely that anyone would contest his will.
It remains to be seen whether or not Shawn will be able to successfully contest Larry’s new will. However, because the new will was created in such an informal manner, her case will be a lot stronger than it would’ve been had Larry worked with lawyers. Indeed, Shawn told The New York Post’s Page Six that Larry never told her about the new will, and she believes someone pressured him to draft it. If a trusted Wills and Trusts planning lawyer had been involved, the threat of contesting based on such “duress” would be much less viable.
Shawn went further and told Page Six, “We had a very watertight family Will and Trust. It still exists, and it is the legitimate will. Period. And I fully believe it will hold up, and my attorneys are going to be filing a response [to the new will], probably by the end of the day.”
While handwritten wills, can be valid, we don’t know the full circumstances surrounding the will’s creation, but several issues stand out. First of all, the fact that Larry was suffering from multiple serious health conditions and was in and out of the hospital could lead the court to question whether or not Larry was of sound mind when he created the new document.
Additionally, Shawn’s claim that Larry was pressured into changing his will could raise questions as to whether or not Larry was coerced into disinheriting her by one of his children. And even if Shawn isn’t successful in contesting Larry’s new will, the resulting litigation will be a lengthy, costly, and needless ordeal.
Finally, had Larry consulted with an attorney when seeking to amend his plan to account for his impending divorce, he would have been advised that a will is not the ideal planning vehicle for protecting and passing on his assets to his heirs. To ensure that this occurred in the manner in which he wanted, Larry could have used a trust for this purpose. While there are several types of trusts available, we would have advised Larry to create a type of trust known as a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust.
Using a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust, Larry could have not only immediately transferred his share of the marital assets to his children upon his death or incapacity, but he could have also ensured that those assets would transfer with airtight protection from common life events. Best of all, this protection would last for the lifetime of his designated beneficiaries.
Sadly, Larry chose to pass those assets to his children via a will and with no protection, which guarantees that his family will have to go to court.
Next week, in part two of this series, we’ll discuss how a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust would have benefited Larry and his family, as well as the complications that are likely to arise given that two of Larry’s children died before he had update his plan.
This article is a service of Levi L. Alexander, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents. We help to ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. This is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™. During this session, 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 to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session for free.