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John Denver, a fellow sailor and the matter of wills

Osprey Marina

Osprey Marina in South Carolina

It’s vacation time, and I have been transiting my sailboat north on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Today, I am reminded of Ben Franklin’s quote: “The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.” Fundraising stories and estate issues follow me, even on the ICW, as the following tale proves.

A fellow sailor I met during this trip mentioned that a distant relative of his recently died without a will. He brought this up because he received a solicitation via mail from a search firm which advised him that he was identified as an heir of his relative and would receive 75% of his estate, after expenses, if he signed an agreement with them to locate all heirs and do all of the work necessary to collect the assets, pay taxes and probate the relative’s affairs with the local probate court. To most people, this letter is like winning the lottery!

Sitting in Osprey Marina’s Grill, I walked my new buddy through what’s really about to happen when someone dies without a will:

  • The assets of the deceased are going to the person(s) designated in his state’s laws for “intestate succession.” Many times, this includes distant relatives who are unknown to the decedent.
  • There also will be significant costs to locate their distant relatives, prove the relationship to the decedent and probate the estate. He was shocked when I said this process can take a few years so, unlike the lottery, I advised it could take 3 years to receive his share.
  • Moreover, there are additional expenses: probate fees, lawyer fees, appraiser fees and court costs. In general, these costs can be in excess of 5% of the value of the estate. Then, because a search firm is involved, their fee could be 25% of the amount his relative would receive.

For example, suppose an heir were to receive $100,000; his final share will be approximately $70,000 because $25,000 will go to the search firm and $5,000 will be spent on administrative expenses. Imagine, however, that the estate is worth $3,000,000; in that case, $900,000 could be spent on various fees before the heirs gets any money. I am sure that this is not what anyone wants.

If the relative had done the simplest of wills and established who was to receive his assets, many of these fees and costs could have been avoided. And, most importantly, his assets would be going to the persons and causes he wanted, not what the state decided.

Unfortunately, this happens all too often. I will never forget sitting in Aspen’s Little Nell Hotel in September 1997. My companion that day was John Denver, and I asked him the question I ask every prospect and donor?”Do you have a will?” He said he did not, which surprised me at the time and horrified me when he passed away a few weeks later in Monterey Bay, California, while flying a recently purchased Long-EZ aircraft. John had over 2,700 hours flying, so one never knows when. He had two wives and three children, but the surprise beneficiary of his estate, including 200 royalties on 200 of his own songs, was the State of Colorado.