A Tale of Two Celebrities: Chadwick Boseman and Eddie Van Halen

Nov 9

The death of an iconic figure can sometimes impact us deeply because it reminds us of our shared humanity. With a celebrity’s passing, we realize that death is an equalizer. It also reminds us of the importance of estate planning to protect a person's money and property. Estate planning is not reserved for those with large amounts of wealth or larger-than-life personalities. Life’s difficulties challenge all of us regardless of our relative fame or obscurity.

Estate planning is the process of making decisions about what happens to you, your money, and your property when you pass away or can no longer make decisions for yourself. This year, the deaths of two significant celebrities—the international rock superstar Eddie Van Halen and the global acting phenomenon Chadwick Boseman—provide examples of key considerations in this process. In some ways, these men could not be any more different; however, they serve as a lesson that all of us should have an estate plan in place to protect the ones we love.

The Legacy of Black Panther's Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman died at the age of forty-three after a four-year battle with colon cancer. Despite receiving his cancer diagnosis in 2016, Boseman kept his cancer a secret and continued to play numerous characters, including the heroic figure Black Panther in the Marvel Comics Avenger film franchise. In the summer of 2018, Black Panther grossed an estimated $1.3 billion worldwide and made Boseman a household name. In addition to this iconic role, he also depicted the lives of various African-American figures like Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. His death sent shockwaves throughout both Hollywood and the world. Particularly surprising was how secretive the actor had remained regarding his illness.

It became apparent after his death that Chadwick Boseman valued privacy. Despite being ridiculed in some circles due to the drastic changes in his appearance as he battled cancer, Boseman chose not to disclose his illness. This suggests that Boseman preferred to keep matters regarding his life quiet. As a result, it was surprising to discover that Boseman did not have a will in place at his death. This information was discovered after his widow, Taylor Simone Ledward, filed to open up probate on behalf of his estate. When someone dies without a will, decisions about what happens to the deceased’s possessions becomes a public matter for a court of law to decide.

The process of dividing and distributing someone's property and money after the person dies is called probate. Probate is also applicable to people who have wills. However, if you die with a will in place, your wishes govern to the extent possible. Without a will, the default rules of the particular state apply (called intestacy laws). For people who value privacy, the entire probate process can be very intrusive. It involves the court receiving information about everything you own, choosing someone to oversee the distribution process, and making decisions about items and money that may be special or sensitive to you and your loved ones.

Keeping Your Property and Accounts Hidden from the Public Eye

As part of estate planning, individuals who value privacy can take advantage of the benefits of a living trust. A trust is a legal planning tool used to help privately manage an individual’s money and property for the benefit of a third party. One landmark trait of a trust is its ability to avoid probate. This tool is not restricted to the wealthy. If you value privacy, you may want to consider using a trust to transfer your property and accounts. In addition to providing privacy, trusts allow individuals who establish the trust to implement specific guidelines and restrictions that keep their hard-earned money and cherished possessions away from a beneficiary’s potential creditors or predators. In the absence of proper planning, information regarding what someone owns becomes public, and the deceased person has no input regarding how these items are distributed.

The items presented as part of Boseman's estate—everything he owned at his death—were valued at $939,000, even though Boseman's estimated net worth was said to be closer to $12 million. Some people suspect that a large portion of Boseman's estate is in nonprobatable accounts and private trusts, but that information is not public. If it is true, that information could remain private due to how trusts work. The lesson to learn from Boseman’s case is that through proper advanced planning, you can exercise control over how your final wishes are communicated and shared without the entire world knowing about it.

Eddie Van Halen's Colossal Impact and Life

In October 2020, news of Eddie Van Halen's death at the age of sixty-five after a long battle with throat cancer broke the hearts of fans around the world. Van Halen established himself as a rock-and-roll legend as the founder, primary songwriter, and lead guitarist for the rock band Van Halen. In 1974, Eddie teamed up with his brother Alex Van Halen and two of their friends to become one of the top rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s. Over the years, the band experienced massive success, coupled with notable tensions. Through it all, Eddie Van Halen was known for incredible guitar solos that placed him in a league of his own.

Van Halen's vices included significant drinking and chain-smoking. He also experienced numerous ups and downs in his romantic life. In 1981, he married his first wife, Valerie Bertinelli, and in 1990, the couple had a son, Wolfgang. Their marriage did not last, however, with a separation beginning in 2002 that eventually resulted in their ultimate divorce in 2006. Van Halen married once more in 2012 to his public relations representative at the time, Janie Liszewski.

Van Halen was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000. As a result of the diagnosis, one-third of his tongue was removed. He was reportedly cancer-free for a few years, but it was eventually disclosed that the cancer had returned. It eventually spread to his throat and esophagus and ultimately took his life. At the time of his passing, Van Halen's net worth was estimated to be around $100 million. So far, there is little to no information available regarding his estate planning; however, it is suspected that he had an estate plan in place.

Planning for Spouses and Children

For those who do not have Van Halen’s superstardom but have shared experiences as far as divorce, children, and remarriage, there are some estate planning issues to consider. First, estate planning should account for any alimony (spousal support) that may have been put in place at the time of a divorce. The terms of the divorce and the conclusions regarding property ownership may significantly impact how one plans to distribute his or her money and property. Additional considerations regarding children from that union should be addressed. This becomes even more important if more children are brought into the picture via a second marriage. Even though Van Halen’s family situation does not require that analysis, there is another factor that likely impacted his planning: his only son, Wolfgang Van Halen, also worked with his father. Because of the significant assets involved in this estate, it is hoped that Van Halen utilized trust instruments to facilitate the easy transfer of property and assets to his intended recipients.

What You Can Do

The great and small among us will eventually pass away. To help you make things easier for your loved ones and to ensure peace of mind, please call our office and schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys. Estate planning is necessary whether you are interested in protecting your privacy or ensuring your child or spouse's care, and we are here to help.

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