I came across a surprising story in Estate Planning history. I thought it might be instructional and somewhat entertaining.
For those who are not familiar with Chief Justice Burger, he was was the Chief Judge on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1969-1986. During the “Burger Court” several landmark cases were heard and decided including Roe v. Wade (establishing a woman’s right to privacy and thus the right to an abortion) as well as U.S. v. Nixon (establishing that the Court had the power to determine whether executive privilege could shield the President from lawful searches-Watergate).
Ok, so what did I find out about Burger that made me so surprised? It was the fact that he dedicated so little thought and effort to his estate planning. The operative portion of his will consisted of 3 sentences:
- My executors will first pay all claims against my estate
- The remainder of my estate will be distributed as follows: one-third to my daughter, Margaret Elizabeth Burger Rose and two-thirds to my son, Wade A. Burger;
- I designate and appoint as executors of this will, Wade A. Burger and J. Michael Luttig.
The Will was valid, but totally inadequate to relieve the burden and stress of administering the estate on his Son. I am sure Burger had substantial holdings in real estate and property. The liquidation and re-titling and liquidation of these assets take time administratively if they are not not in some sort of trust.
Not only do probated estates (estates where the distribution has to be supervised by the Court) take more time, but they are also public. Any Joe Smoe off the street has the ability to see what those holdings are. I am sure that Margaret (Burger’s daughter) would have preferred that the whole world not know that she only received 1/2 of what her brother received. He probably took time to make his decision about why he wouldn’t distribute his estate evenly between kids, but those reasons are not found within the Will. If you want to make your business public you ought to do it in such a way as to explain your actions. There are many commentators who criticize Burger’s distribution decisions and I am sure that to some degree his children have to deal with and explain that decision.
There are good reasons to create only a Will and to want your estate distribution to go through the Court, but for most people there are more benefits to use a trust. Estate Planning is an area that everyone needs to take seriously and many people fail to plan because of the intellectual effort that it requires to decide how and who should inherit your estate. I hope that this story serves to inspire you not to neglect this planning for too long.