Many celebrities have failed to properly execute their estate plans, or do any estate planning at all for that matter. James Brown's estate is still under litigation due to his vague and poorly written will, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman paid millions in estate taxes that could have easily been avoided, and Howard Hughes did nothing about his $2.5 billion estate - leading to an expensive, time consuming litigation. As tragic as David Bowie's early death was, from an estate planning perspective, he appears to have set up his estate plan in a responsible way. Bowie's forethought in planning ahead will save his family from further heartbreak. After all, that's really what estate planning is all about - eliminating unnecessary burden for loved ones when you pass. Nevertheless, his estate plan did leave a few questions for fans and trust attorneys alike.
So, let's take a closer look at what David Bowie and his attorneys did.
According to the NY Times, David Bowie executed his estate plan in 2004 with New York Celebrity Estate Planning Attorney Herbert Nass. Bowie's estate plan appears to consist of two primary vehicles for bequeathing his assets - a will and at least two trusts. In California, a detailed will is often avoided, with one's trust being the primary vehicle for distributing assets. There are several benefits to this, including maintaining privacy. New York probate law, on the other hand, seemingly benefits the curious side of our natures, allowing us to take a peek at how celebrities distribute their estates. This is because when a will is filed, or lodged, with the court, it becomes public record. Before I get carried away with the details of how a will, trust, or probate works in California, I'll go over the interesting details of Bowie's will.
In his will, filed with the NY Probate Court on January 10th, David R. Jones (Bowie's legal name) made several important requests. First, he asked that his ashes be scattered in Bali, "in accordance with Buddhist Rituals." Apparently Mr. Bowie had a special place in his heart for the island, even requesting to be cremated there if possible. No doubt his attorney told him this may prove too cumbersome for his family members, so his will did include a caveat allowing for them to forego the Bali cremation. They appeared to take him up on this, as David Bowie was reportedly cremated on January 12th in New Jersey.
Typically, a will appoints an executor to handle the estate and distribute assets according to the grantor's wishes (i.e. the person who has died). The named executor is often a family member or close friend, but can also be a professional. In Bowie's case, he named his business manager, William Zysblat, and his London attorney as the executors of his estate. His London attorney, Mr. Paddy Green, apparently decided to step down from his role as executor, leaving Mr. Zysblat as the primary administrator of the estate. In California, a named executor can also ask to be relieved of their duties. However, the executor would also be giving up potential earnings for their role.
Bowie's estate will likely not be too complicated for his business manager to handle, as the majority of his $100 million estate was left to family. The two exceptions were $1 million to his son's childhood nanny, who his son said he considered "as his mother," and $2 million to his assistant of 40 years, Corinne Coco Schwab.
As for his children, Bowie left $25 million to his 44 year old son, Duncan (originally named Zowie Bowie), and $25 million to his fifteen year old daughter Alexandria. While Duncan's money appears to have been given "outright," Alexandria's money, along with a home in upstate NY, was left for her in a trust. Placing the assets in a trust for Alexandria was necessary because she is a minor. However, it also would have allowed David to handpick a specific person to oversee the funds (a trustee), as well as specify his wishes for how the assets would be distributed to her. Common ways to set up a trust for a minor include specifications regarding what age and/or manner they receive the funds. For example, Bowie could have specified that Alexandria receive $10 million upon her graduation from college, and the rest when she turned 35.
There are several questions that came up for me as a Trust and Estate Attorney as I read about David Bowie's Estate Plan. The first was the issue of privacy, and the second was the trust he set up for his wife.
As for privacy, reading headlines about David Bowie's will immediately had me wondering why his Estate Plan was public knowledge. The details of his estate became available for us to see, as soon as his will was filed with the NY Probate courts. Perhaps this is typical of New York law and could not have been avoided. However, had David Bowie set up his Estate Plan in California, the details of his assets, heirs, etc would likely have remained private. Under California law, if assets are placed inside a trust, the administration of said trust can take place entirely outside the court system, therefore ensuring privacy. I made a decision not to get too deep into the nitty gritty of NY law, as I am grateful to get a look inside Bowie's estate plan, -and I'm sure you are too.
Now, the second question I had as a Trust attorney was about David's wife, former model Iman Abdulmajid Jones. Bowie left his wife of 23 years half of his estate, or roughly $50 million dollars, plus their NYC apartment. However, according to new sources, her money was not left to her outright, as was the case with Bowie's son Duncan. Instead, it was placed in a trust with instructions for distribution. Terms of the trust require that trustees pay Iman income from the trust on a quarterly basis, with additional funds being granted for the purposes of "health, education, and maintenance." Why would Bowie not entrust the entirety of the funds, and their management, to his wife? While my clients in California may not have these kinds of funds, I have yet to see a husband make these kind of requirements for his wife's inheritance. Such specifications for trust distribution are typically made in the case of a minor, young adult child, special needs individual, or person who has a problem with addiction. Bowie's wife, Iman, on the other hand, is a sixty year old former super model who runs a business empire of her own. Her cosmetics line alone is a $25 million per year business. Perhaps we will never know the details of their arrangement, but a bit of research into David Bowie's life before Iman, and his open admissions of being gay/bisexual, did leave me wondering about the nature of their marriage. That, however, is beyond my scope as a Trust and Estate Attorney, and therefore shall be left for another day.
While some questions about David Bowie's life, and his will, may forever go unanswered, the important thing is that he acted in his family's best interest by planning for his eventual death.
A clearly worded, specific, and detailed will and trust go a long way in preventing family strife when a loved one dies. If you have questions about Estate Planning, Probate, or a Trust Matter, contact my office in downtown Walnut Creek for a free consultation: 925-36-4325.