Purple Pain: Legal and Business Lessons from Prince's Death

Some Teachable Moments for Clients and Prospects

Purple Pain: Legal and Business Lessons from Prince’s Death
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The unexpected death of a celebrity like Prince at a relatively young age can serve as a reminder to prospective and current clients to, as the saying goes, “get their affairs in order.” That can be a refrain their lawyers or others may have been singing to them for years. It’s all too easy to put tasks like that off to tomorrow, next month, next year all while thinking there is plenty of time, that you’re in perfect health, that of course everything will go to the kids.

Well, first of all, the kids need to know where everything is, and if you are married, you may be required to leave a bit to your spouse, and there might be other things you want to take care of, like upkeep of your house, like easing your loves ones’ way in the immediate aftermath of your death. Or making sure that if you aren’t dead but are just in a really bad way, such that you are incapable of making decisions, that good decisions are being made for you by someone whose judgment you trust.

If You Are Just Incapacitated

If you are sick in the elevator of your home, or overcome in the laundry room, or passed out in the attic, who is going to know? Who is going to check on you? If you don’t show up someplace for a day or two, who will know? Who will care? Who will call? Who will break into your house if they have to?

If Your Relationships Are Complicated

Prince’s personal life appears to have indeed been personal, but, in many ways, his life was unconventional.

In many ways, all of our lives are unconventional. Think, for instance, of all the ways even mainstream, middle-class lives can get complicated, what with divorces, or cohabitation without marriage, multiple families, multiple homes, one with the first spouse, one with the second, maybe a weekend place or a timeshare someplace exotic, maybe some business deals with various partners, maybe a few contracts on the side, maybe some people beyond family you’d like to take care of, the longtime housekeeper, the lawn guy, your kids’ nanny.

If you were to pass out in an elevator, or collapse on the stairs, or get hit by a fast-moving train, would someone significant know who your life insurance is with? Your homeowner’s insurance? Your car insurance? Whether your car is leased? From where? Who knows all this stuff, or at least how to access information about it?

Are some of your kids adults? Are some still minors? How are their needs different? If you want them to hold on to a house, who will maintain it and with what funds?

Then, too, if you die when you are not that old, it’s possible you are taking care of the affairs of an elderly or incapacitated parent or an elderly aunt. Who knows how to make sense of that whole mess?

Do you have pets? What will happen to them?

Lawyers working on trusts and estates can use the example of Prince to start a conversation or underscore one they have long been having with hedging clients. It’s a hassle to figure all of this out, and tedious, and also doesn’t really get the individual paying the legal bills further along in her own life. It’ll just give some peace of mind to some people after she’s gone.

Should a series of unfortunate events take place, it is all too easy for things to fall apart.

Authorizing Access

There are little things to consider, like all of the photos you have uploaded to Facebook, or stored in Dropbox, or just taken with your smartphone. Do you want certain people to be able to access everything? What about your personal communications? Do you want your heirs to read your email or find out that you went to lunch with your high school girlfriend not too long ago? Where are your passwords? Who will know even where to look for them? Will someone be able to access your computer, or is that password-protected? Who do you want going through your stuff? Even as many elements of our lives have become quicker and more convenient and can be easily accessed in many ways, important parts can still be hard to penetrate.

The takeaway from Prince’s death is not just that you need to make a will and let people know where it is, but that you will need to make a whole lot of other arrangements as well.

Things can and do go wrong in all sorts of bad ways. If you have a will, do you have an alternative executor specified in case the first named one does not want to serve or is not able to (e.g., died with you in the car crash)? Do important people in your life even know who your lawyer is? Will your lawyer know that you have died?

Prepare for your incapacitation. Who do you want making decisions for you if you are incapable of making them yourself? Whose judgment do you trust? What else might they have going on in their life that may impact their decision-making skills regarding yours?

Taking Inventory

Will your heirs even be able to locate and then sell your assets? Think about intellectual property you may own. Your heirs may not know about a book you published in your thirties or about your side business selling handmade furniture to order. What about things you are currently working on? If you are hit by a train today, would you want your unfinished memoir or your still-has-a-few-bugs app for smartphones to be released tomorrow? Who will get to decide if you are gone?

Who knows where all of your insurance paperwork is stored? Is it in that filing cabinet in the basement, in the one in the attic, in those boxes in that storage space over the garage, or in your computer digitally stored? Who knows what policies you may have? Who will be making sure any pertinent premiums are paid while you are incapacitated or your estate is settled? What will happen if your house burns down a month after you die?

If you own a home and you are relying on it to provide a big chunk of change to your heirs after you pass, consider the resale value of your real estate. Do you own a white elephant that will only be purchased by a very special buyer? Who will be paying for the maintenance of the property until that special person appears? Do you live in a home of historical interest? It might not become a museum based on your life, but perhaps it is a significant building in your town. It could be the family farm. Do you want just anyone to be able to develop it or make modifications to it?

If you happen to run your own business, it would probably be helpful to have a succession plan if you want that business to continue to exist after you do not. How will your business be able to keep operating? Who approves the payroll? Who is able to make deposits and collect accounts receivable? Who is overseeing accounts payable and making sure the lights stay on?

Do you have a home-based business with employees or temporary assistants? You might have a plan in place should an emergency occur. You might have the address of your home posted in a prominent place in your office area and elsewhere. You might designate a meeting place beyond the property if, for instance, a fire breaks out, an earthquake occurs, or some other calamity takes place.

If you work remotely from a brick-and-mortar business and die in your home office, will your family or significant people in your life know the name of the organization for which you work? Will they be able to find the name and contact information for your supervisor or your company’s human resources department?

Contracts, Orders, Oh My

Are you selling stuff on eBay, Etsy, Amazon, elsewhere? Who knows what’s in the works? Who will be able to access your orders, and fulfill or cancel them? Don’t assume that your loved ones are following the day-to-day minutiae of your craft-making world or that they really grasp the nitty-gritty details of your business. Are there contracts you have in place that you are in the process of fulfilling? What obligations will linger after your death? This can be important if you do a bit of consulting on the side.

Good Deeds Beyond Death

If you give regularly to charitable organizations, will those organizations be able to continue if contributions they anticipate from you suddenly aren’t made? What accommodations are you making for your causes?

Changing Times

Do you actually have a will drafted that you haven’t got around to signing because, of course, you’re not planning to die until it’s a little more convenient? Or did you have one prepared long ago when you had a different spouse and one less kid? Will any of your children need special assistance extending into adulthood? Is someone going to challenge your will? This can happen even with relatively modest estates.

There is a lot to think about, and probably a lot to talk about, and lawyers working in this area might use the example of Prince, who died without a will, as a conversation starter with clients and prospective ones. Everyone else would probably be well-served to indeed get their affairs in order and to get a bit of legal advice in doing so.