News outlets reported over the weekend that Mickey Rooney’s widow is contesting his Will in Court. According to this news story by Alan Duke on CNN.com; Mr. Rooney’s estate has an estimated value of $18,000, and his Will leaving his entire estate to his step-son (and excluding is ex-spouse and natural-born children) is being contested.
As intriguing as this sounds, what are the true facts of this case? It can be hard to tell because only a fraction of the estate information has been made public up to this point. If you do not know about estate law, however, you may think that the late actor’s estate truly was worthless. If that were the case, why is his widow contesting his Will? There must be more than meets the eye.
First of all, many famous people have Wills that are filed with the Court after they die. The Will’s are meant to satisfy people’s urge to gain access to the inside information of a celebrity’s estate. But many times, the Will is meaningless because most people of celebrity status create Trusts during their liftetimes (revocable, living Trusts), and transfer their wealth to the Trust to be held and distributed by the Trustee outside the Court system (and outside the public microscope of the media). So just because a celebrity’s Will is filed in Court does NOT mean that a Trust is non-existent. In most cases, the Will is just a red herring meant to satiate the public.
Secondly, the estimated estate value listed on a petition for probate is just that—a rough estimate. Nothing has been officially appraised yet. Only after the estate is open is a proper inventory and appraisal compiled by the Exeuctor (using a probate referee to appraise the assets) and filed with the Court. Until the official appraisal is filed, the numbers listed on the petition for probate are mere speculation.
Furthermore, only assets that are governed by the estate are listed and appraised. Anything held in a Trust would fall outside the estate and therefore not be appraised as part of the probate process—and thereby become public. So it is possible that the “probate” estate has very little in it, while the “Trust” estate could have far more value.
So why contest a Will for a valueless estate? I don’t know why the parties are doing so here, but I could speculate on a few possibilities. One possibility could be royalty rights to the actor’s estate. There could be a provision in the Will either directing future royalty rights or exercising a power of appointment, which is a mechanism that allows a decedent to change the distribution from his Trust using a term in the Will. Powers of appointment are not often exercised, but they can be a valuable tool to change the distribution provisions of a Trust without having to do a Trust amendment. And since Mr. Rooney was under a conservatorship at the time of his death, a Trust amendment would not have been possible (unless the Court ordered it). A Will on the other hand is still perfectly possible even when signed by a conservatee.
Whatever the reason, people don’t hire lawyers to contest estate’s worth $18,000 (usually) so there is something at stake in this mess…the question is what?