July 1, 2009

Michael Jackson's Will Names Diana Ross as Back-up Guardian of his Children

While millions of people around the world continue to mourn the death of Michael Jackson, the self-pronounced King of Pop, in Los Angeles, CA last week, a battle is being waged over the distribution of his estate and potentially over guardianship of the superstar's children by Motown diva Diana Ross.

Jackson's will, which was filed today in a Los Angeles County court, leaves his entire estate to a family trust in which he named his own mother, Katherine Jackson, as a beneficiary and as the guardian of his three children. You can read the full story at Fox News.

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Notably missing from the will was Jackson's ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, his father and his siblings. Katherine Jackson on Monday was granted temporary guardianship of Jackson's children, and his will makes it expressly clear that he desired for his mother to become their permanent legal guardian. In the alternative, he named Diana Ross as back-up guardian.

Complicating matters further is the fact that there has been a flurry of litigation in the California case because it was unclear at first whether Jackson even had a will or died intestate.

To this point, Rowe (the eldest children's mother) has not stepped forward to assert any parental rights. Jackson's youngest child was carried to term by a surrogate who was not aware that she was carrying the King of Pop's child.

The discussions, arguments and watercooler conversations about Michael Jackson and the impact he made in the world (good and bad) will be debated for many, many years to come. Point in fact, we still debate "Fat Elvis" vs. "Skinny Elvis" to this day.

However, what I suggest that you take from the situation is the importance in California of having a will that concisely, clearly and accurately reflects your wishes for how your children and estate are dealt with after your death. In the Jackson case, it is very likely that Jackson's children will remain with his mother according to his wishes, although if Rowe asserts parental rights in the case there will likely be lengthy litigation before it is resolved.

Just as importantly is that someone in your family or circle of friends knows that you have a will AND knows where to find it. The best-written will is completely useless if it remains anonymously hidden away. Oftentimes, the party (also called the "testator" during life and the "decedent" after death) will keep the will on file with the attorney who drafted the document. More and more, testators are filing their wills with a "will registry." A will registry, such as U.S. Living Will Registry, is a service that keeps a detailed computer record of wills, powers of attorney and so forth and is easily searchable at the time of death. Think of it as a bridal registry for funerals.

Regardless of which method you choose, you should make certain that when the time comes, your will is known and easily located. Otherwise, decisions about what to do with your children and property will be determined entirely by a stranger wearing a black robe who knows very little about you and your family.

For more information about California family law and estate planning issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks.

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