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Heirs at law on beach

Before I explain the concept of “heirs at law,” you might be thinking, why even bring this up? Of what relevance is this “Ye Olde Sounding Phraise” in today’s modern world?

It’s important for me to share the concept of “heirs at law” with you, dear GoFisch blog Reader, for three reasons.

  1. It helps explain why I, and other estate planners, ask so many darn questions. We need lots of info.
  2. The concept of “heirs at law” shows that you need to be open and honest and forthcoming with me, or any estate planner. Without complete transparency and truth, the estate plan runs the risk of being useless (the idea of “garbage in, garbage out” applies here).
  3. “Heirs at law” is yet another reason that a DIY will, or using an online service to produce your will, is just a terrible idea. You need an estate plan crafted by a trusted professional, unique to your special needs. Every family is different, so there can be no “one-size-fits-all” estate plan, and there are many moving parts to a comprehensive estate plan.

With that established, what does the term “heirs at law” actually mean?

girl drawing heart in sand

Heirs at law are those folks who would inherit your property in the event you died without a will, which is called intestacy1. It is critically important to determine who the heirs at law are, even for people not subject to the laws of intestacy (i.e., folks who have a will) for two big reasons.

  1. Heirs at law must be notified of the probate process.
  2. Heirs at law are allowed to challenge the Will in probate court.

As I already stated, you must provide all the information your estate planner requests. As a practical matter, the extent of information you’ll need to provide your estate planner regarding heirs at law depends of the nature of your family and relatives. For instance, in the case of two people, married only to each other, with children only from that one marriage—then the spouse and children (and perhaps grandchildren) will be the obvious heirs at law.

In another example, a family could also constitute a remarriage with each spouse having children from previous relationships. In this case, the stepchildren would need to be adopted by the applicable stepparent to be considered an heir at law.

In other situations, the client relatives may be much more distant, requiring more fact investigation. For example, take the case of a client who is unmarried and without children. In such a situation, the estate planner will need to pay close attention to identifying other relatives.

Family walking down road hand-in-hand

Of course, you can bequeath your estate to whomever you choose. You don’t have to give anything to any of your obvious or non-obvious heirs at law or any other relative for that matter. (In colloquial terms we could call this “stiffing your relatives.”)

This point reiterates why the estate planner should know and have updated contact information of who are the heirs at law. Again, it’s required that heirs at law be notified of probate process and these heirs (unlike a non-relative work colleague or neighbor) also have the legal standing to contest the will in court.

Another reason the estate planner must have knowledge of the heirs at law is to ward off fraudulent claims, if need be. This reason is particularly important if the heirs at law are distant relatives. (An unfortunate real world example of this involves Prince and the complicated intestate process following the singer’s passing without an estate plan.)

Bottom line: heirs at law are important when it comes to the distribution of your estate (with or without a Will). Of course, dying intestate is NOT optimal and you DO need a Will for a number of important reasons. I’d love to discuss the topic over the phone (515-371-6077) or via email. Don’t hesitate to contact me at any time!


[1] Bonus word! If an Iowan dies without a will, they die “intestate” and the laws of “intestate” succession are used to determine who will inherit the estate.

After Prince’s unfortunate death in 2016 the news featured a multitude of articles commemorating his life and artistic influence. After those headlines faded, a new piece of news emerged: the artist died without a will. His estate, estimated to be between $150-$300 million, went to probate in the state of Minnesota and the state court appointed a special administrator to parcel out what Prince actually owned, the value of the property, and whom will actually receive the assets.

It’s a bad idea for anyone to die without an estate plan in place, as it leave a great deal up to the law of intestate succession. Most people would prefer to choose their beneficiaries and a trusted executor to carry out their wishes. Under intestacy laws, you cannot chose these important people. You also cannot use your estate plan to achieve goals reduce or eliminate income, estate, or inheritance taxes. Basically, without a will you have no control over who gets what of your hard-earned assets at death.

Unfortunately, far too many people (six out of 10 Americans) don’t have estate planning documents like a will or living trust. Plus, since celebrities often have complex and highly valuable assets, dying intestate is often an extremely complicated, litigious affair. (For the sake of your friends, family, and lasting legacy avoiding litigation is a good goal to have with an estate plan.) For instance, a big question in the Prince case is who will be the beneficiary of perhaps one of the most persistently valuable assets—the right of publicity, which includes elements like Prince’s name and likeness.

While the average Iowan won’t have to consider publicity rights a part of their estate, there are at least six key documents celebs and the non-famous alike should have that cover important elements like finances, healthcare, and personal disposition of property.

Learn from Prince and these other five celebrities (among many more) who passed away without the proper estate planning in place:

  1. Howard Hughes, entrepreneur/producer/aviator

Howard Hughes

Hughes died on a flight in 1976 with no surviving spouse, child, parent, or sibling. Without a will, his $500 million-valued estate was eventually decided by a small Texas county probate court jury five years after his passing. The probate had brought about a “circus-like” atmosphere as more than 600 people showed up in person claiming to be “wives, sons, daughters, first, second, third, fourth and fifth cousins” of the late Hughes (and that didn’t count all the people who petitioned via letter). A couple of wills were also produced but were eventually thrown out as fakes.

  1. Amy Winehouse, singer/songwriter

Amy Winehouse

The British artist died in 2011 when she was just 27. Without a will her estate worth millions went to her parents. Say, even if Winehouse did want her brother to inherit part of the estate, he couldn’t because of (U.K.) laws covering who inherits what.

  1. Tupac Shakur, rapper/actor

tupac shakur

Shakur was tragically shot and killed in 1996 at the young age of 25; after his death, “his mother had to file court papers establishing herself as the administrator of his estate and the sole living heir.” Shakur also left a complex web of financial dealings, spendings, and debts to figure out. Shakur’s estate was made more complicated over the years through several albums of his music (intellectual property) released posthumously. Additionally, Tupac’s biological father lost a lawsuit claiming he was entitled to half of the estate.

  1. Pablo Picasso, artist

Pablo Picasso

It took more than six years of “bitter negotiations” for Picasso’s estate to be settled (for a pricey $30 million) after he died in 1973. Picasso passed at the ripe old age of 91, but did so without a will, so his assets were divided amongst seven familiar heirs. Picasso left a massive amount of valuable assets including 45,000 works of art, five homes, $4.5 million cash, $1.3 in gold, stocks, and bonds. “In 1980 the Picasso estate was appraised at $250 million, but experts have said the true value was actually in the billions.”

  1. Sonny Bono, singer/U.S. Representative

sonny bono

Bono passed away in 1998 following a fatal skiing accident with no will to his name. Issues flared when Cher (of their former pop duo Sonny & Cher) alleged he owned her past due alimony and a man named Sean Machu said he was Bono’s illegitimate child. His fourth spouse became the estate’s administrator.

  1.  Billie Holiday, jazz musician/singer

Billie Holiday

The famed singer’s estate at the time of her death stands as a paradox to her modern posthumous fame. When Holiday died in 1959 she had “$0.70 in the bank and $750 strapped to her leg.” Since she died intestate under New York state law all of her royalties went to her estranged husband Louis McKay. Her total estate only continued to grow after her death including four Grammy awards, a movie about her life starring Diana Ross, and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.


You, yes you, can be a star too, but you need to have an estate plan in place to protect your legacy. The best way to get started is with my free (no obligation) estate plan questionnaire. Or, contact me to discuss your individual situation. Shoot me an email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077.

Prince 1958-2016

When Prince died in 2016 the world lost an icon and amazing contributor to music and art. Unfortunately, it has come to light that the award-winning artist passed away without an estate plan. Considering all of Prince’s 12 properties, eight vehicles, fine art, unreleased music, and hoarded gold bars, it’s estimated his entire estate could be worth $300 million pre-tax. Prince didn’t have any stocks or bonds but he did have about $6 million spread across four companies. A Minnesota court judge on the issue said without the will the estate’s current status is “personal and corporate mayhem.” Comerica Bank & Trust—the company that took over the Bremer Trust’s duties to administer the “Purple Rain” singer’s estate earlier this year—is still appraising the total value of the estate and itemizing everything Prince owned.

Paisley Park

Prince’s Minneapolis estate, Paisley Park Studios

The situation has created a tragic real world example of the infighting and conflict that can occur if passing away without a will; currently there are six potential heirs to Prince’s fortune including his sister and five other half-siblings.

Now, most Iowans aren’t going to have multiple gold bars sitting around and properties valued at over $25 million total, but that doesn’t make what assets and property you do have any less important. If you don’t have a will, it can cost your family and friends a lot of time, a lot of money, and indeed lots of anxiety and even heartache. Here are four reasons you need a will.

  1. Without a will, probate courts and the Iowa Legislature decide everything about your estate.

If you die without a will, you are leaving it up to the legislature/courts to decide who will receive your property. Or possibly even who will get to raise your children!

  1. Without a will, you cannot choose a guardian for your children.

After Prince died multiple claims were put forth about potential biological and adopted children. Whether or not those claims are true, you likely do know who your children are and if you die without a will, the courts will choose guardians for your children. One of the most important aspects of a will is that it allows you to designate who will be the guardian for your children. This can ensure that your children are cared for by the person that you want, not who the court chooses for you.

  1. Without a will, the probate court will choose your estate’s executor.

If you die without a will, the probate court is forced to name an executor. The executor of your estate handles tasks like paying your creditors and distributing the rest of your assets to your heirs. Of course, if the probate court has to pick who will be your estate’s executor, there is always a possibility that you would not have approved of that person if you had been alive.

If you have a will, it will name an executor who will carry out all of your final wishes, pay your bills, and distribute your assets just as you wanted.

Prince and purple symbol

  1. Without a will, you can’t give your favorite nonprofits gifts from your estate.

Prince was a resident of Minnesota, and each state has different matters regarding intestate succession (dying without a valid will). If you die without a will, your estate assets—your house, savings, life insurance, trusts—will pass to your heirs under Iowa’s statute. But, if you have a will, you can include gifts to your favorite nonprofits and see that they are helped for many years to come. Prince may have wanted to give to charities given his track record while living. He gave to Black Lives Matter, Harlem Children’s Zone, and National Public Radio. Prince was actively engaged with #YesWeCode, an initiative to train black children for good jobs in the tech industry. He gave more than $1.5 million over just two years to Love 4 One Another Charities Tour and supported an environmentalist group working to fight climate change and grown green jobs among other initiatives, Green For All. Regrettably, without an estate plan Prince didn’t have a chance to support these charities through his estate in the event of his death.