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Aretha Franklin’s Estate Remains Uncertain Months After Her Death

NEW YORK, NY - FEB 18, 2012: Aretha Franklin performs in concert at Radio City Music Hall on February 18, 2012, in New York. (Editorial Use Only)

NEW YORK, NY - FEB 18, 2012: Aretha Franklin performs in concert at Radio City Music Hall on February 18, 2012, in New York. (Editorial Use Only)

Based upon documentation filed in Michigan’s Oakland County court, the beloved singer-songwriter’s estate is estimated to be worth approximately $80 million dollars. However, despite her wealth and access to counsel, she died with no will, trust or estate plan. In December, the IRS filed a claim in probate court alleging that Ms. Franklin owed several million dollars in back taxes and penalties at the time of her death. These claims must be either satisfied or contested prior to the distribution of the estate, and could add years to an already complicated, expensive process. To add to the disorder, it is being reported that an heir to Ms. Franklin’s estate is attempting to obtain a court order requiring the estate to provide them with monthly financial documents and that another potential heir suffers from special needs.

Ms. Franklin’s lack of a comprehensive estate plan has resulted in the details of her wealth, debts and family relationships being a very public matter. Generally, the rights to song royalties, copyrights and publishing rights and the inherent difficulty in valuing such assets, lead to prolong battles with the IRS and will ensure a long and very public probate process. Additionally, the consequences of a distribution of funds to a special needs beneficiary can have far reaching, unintended effects to such beneficiary.

A properly drafted estate plan could have avoided this very public probate, kept her estate assets and debts private, expedited the distribution of her wealth and provided appropriately for the special needs of one of her children.

Whether you’re a celebrity or not, the best course of action, always, is to prepare for the eventuality of death with an updated, current estate plan, which takes into consideration all aspects of your life and ensures that your estate, big or small, and the distribution of your assets remains a private matter between you and your loved ones.

What Happens to Your Estate if You Die Before Your Divorce is Finalized?

The untimely death of chef and actor Anthony Bourdain has brought to national attention the potential ramifications of a person’s death during a divorce proceeding. In the same vein, it has highlighted the importance of understanding what would happen to your estate if you were to die during the pendency of your dissolution without having made any changes to your estate plan.

As occurred with Mr. Bourdain’s untimely death, he had been separated from his wife of 20 years for a year and a half. Though the pending “divorce” was made very public, it is unknown whether any divorce filing actually occurred,

What if does indeed happen if you have not taken steps in expectation of a permanent separation (indeed some are more permanent than others)? The broad answer to this complicated issue depends on whether your passing occurs before or after entry of judgment terminating your marital status. This discussion describes what occurs under California Probate and Family Law. The rules for these scenarios may be different in other states.

Death Before Entry of Judgment Terminating Marital Status

If you should die before entry of a status-only judgment, the Family Law Court would lose jurisdiction over all issues, except those already adjudicated. In California, this is called Abatement, and it happens automatically in this situation. Under these circumstances, your share of the community property and all of your separate property would pass as if the Divorce had never been filed! This is true, regardless of who originally filed, how long the divorce went on, how long the period of separation, or how hostile the parties were to each other during the process. It is also true regardless of cohabitation with a new significant other, regardless of the length of that cohabitation.

Therefore, your assets would pass to the beneficiaries of your current estate plan, which is usually your surviving spouse. If you do not have an estate plan, your estate, if over $150,000.00, would pass through probate, and your spouse would potentially receive all of the community property assets and a share of the separate property. Any non-probate assets, such as retirement assets and life insurance plans, would pass to your designated beneficiaries, again, normally your estranged spouse.

Death After Judgment Terminating Marital Status

If you should die after a status-only judgment (a provision of California law that allows the divorce to occur before, or separate from, the resolution of the other issues) that expressly reserves jurisdiction over the remaining issues in the case, the Family Law Court would retain jurisdiction and the property division would take place there. The personal representative of your estate would be substituted in your place in the divorce for this purpose, and the Family Law Court would be able to decide the outstanding issues in the case. It is worth noting, that the court’s jurisdiction over custody, child support, and spousal support would terminate automatically upon your death in the vast majority of cases.

Death after a status-only judgment also has a very different impact on how your estate would be distributed. A judgment of dissolution automatically terminates non-probate transfers between former spouses, including wills, trusts, and beneficiary rights under retirement plans. It also terminates the right of survivorship interest in joint tenancies and community property with right of survivorship. Unless the respective wills provide otherwise, the judgment also revokes all testamentary transfers between former spouses and any provision in a will nominating the former spouse as trustee, conservator or agent. However, a judgment of dissolution does not terminate the surviving spouse’s rights as a designated beneficiary under the life insurance policy. While the ability to change a beneficiary of a retirement plan or life insurance policy may remain during a divorce, California law prohibits such a change after the filing or service of Divorce papers.

One issue that everyone should consider with an impending divorce is that if you do not sign documents specifically stating otherwise, your estranged spouse will continue to hold the power, upon your incapacity, to make medical decisions on your behalf and, like in the case of Anthony Bourdain, will be the person to make all decisions regarding the disposition of your remains.

While no-one anticipates their death, the best course of action, always, is to prepare for that eventuality with an updated, current estate plan, which takes into consideration all aspects of your life, including an impending divorce. Sometimes doing nothing is indeed a conscious choice; by way of illustration a person with knowledge of a terminal illness also going through a divorce who chooses to maintain or change his/her estate plan. Sometimes it’s simply doing nothing.

Obviously we recommend that you always make that conscious choice knowing all of the consequences of that choice.

Who Keeps the Pet?

By Michelle Brooker

The strong bond between an owner and their pet cannot be understated. Whether we’re talking about a dog, cat, goldfish or a Llama, owners often treat their pets almost like children and, for many, they are an inseparable part of the family. Since we care so strongly for our pets, they can be just as much a point of contention as child custody – however, your pet doesn’t enjoy the same legal status as a child would. Many of our clients often ask us, “Who gets to keep the pet?”.

While many of us view our animals as children, unfortunately, the California courts do not share that view. When parties decide to dissolve their marriage, your pets, despite being living things, are viewed by the California Courts as property.

As the law sees it, your beloved pet is an asset with an assigned value, just as the court views your vehicle, home, and bank accounts. Therefore, in order to determine who will be awarded the property, the court must first determine the character of that property.

How Are Pets Characterized When Determining Property Division

Characterization is a bit of a misnomer to those who aren’t fluent in legalese. Characterization isn’t a description of whether Fido is a “good boy” or a “bad dog”, but rather a classification. Property in the dissolution of a marriage is characterized as either separate property, community property, or sometimes may have a mix of separate and community property. Your pet will be ‘characterized’ as either “separate property” or “community property”, like every other asset involved in your case.

What do those terms mean in plain English? Simply put, Community Property is any property acquired during the marriage, whereasSeparate Property is any property acquired before the marriage, after the date of separation or during the marriage by gift, devise, or descent.

If the court characterizes the pet as the separate property of a person, that person will be awarded the pet. It doesn’t matter who took care of the pet or who loved it more or who the pet is most attached to -it boils down to who acquired the pet and when. If you bought the dog before the marriage, it’s your dog – plain and simple, but if you bought the dog while you were a married couple, that’s where things get complicated.

If it is determined that the pet is community property, the pet will be treated as a marital asset and will be valued and divided along with the remainder of all other the marital assets.

Determining The “Value” Of A Pet – What’s Fido Worth?

When determining the value of a pet, more often than not, the sentimental value given to the animal is usually higher than the actual dollar value of a pet. The problem with sentimental value is that it is not a measurable, tangible thing. What that means is that the court will not consider the sentimental value of the animal, but only the actual monetary value of the pet.

For example, let’s imagine you’re married, and you bought an AKC Certified Australian Shepherd Dog for $900. You have the dog a few years, you and your spouse love the dog, but grow apart and decide to end your marriage. Your dog happens to be the world’s best dog in your opinion, so to you, his sentimental value is $100,000 – but that’s not what he’s worth. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that someone could buy a similar AKC rated dog of the same age for $1200 right now online. – That value of what someone else would pay today on the open market is what the dog is worth in the eyes of the law. This is a simplified example, but conveys the point well enough.

The value of the pet will usually be determined by the amount the animal could be sold for on the open market, thus placing a nominal value to an animal (unless a particular factor gives the animal more value). For example, an animal may have more value if it is a purebred, a stud animal, service animal, a specialty trained animal, or an animal bred for racing.

How The Court Determines Who Gets To Keep Fido

Finally, the court will need to determine who will be awarded the pet – the all important question of who keeps Fido the dog or Fluffy the cat. As a result of the law viewing your pet as property, in our experience over thousands of cases,

The best way to ensure that you are awarded your beloved pet is to compromise with the other party.

Since in most cases, both parties still care deeply for their pets, you may need to give up other items you want in order to have other party agree to have the pet awarded to you. If neither party can bear to part with the pet, another option is for the parties to work out a “visitation” agreement that will ensure both parties are able to see the pet.

However, if the parties cannot come to an agreement then the court will make an order awarding the asset to one of the parties. The current laws surrounding dissolution of marriage and family pets may eventually change. Until the laws change, it’s best to try and work with the other party and compromise in order to arrive at an amicable arrangement ensuring you retain custody of your pet.

Determining Who Gets the House in a Divorce

California is one of only a few states in the country that use community property rules when deciding how assets are divided in divorce. To put it simply, property gained or improved during the marriage will be split as evenly as possible; the same is true for marital debt.

For many divorces sorting through and splitting much of their property isn’t much of a problem, but once the family home is on the table, matters can escalate quickly. And it makes sense that they should. Your home is probably your most expensive asset and everyone in your family depends on it. So who is going to get it when the divorce finalizes?

Deciding Factors the Court Will Review

Unless you and your spouse worked out ahead of time who gets your family home and why – this would be a considerable stroke of luck – a California divorce court is going to have the final say in the matter. Knowing what the court is looking for when coming to its decision can help you gain an advantage and increase your chances of keeping the house you put so much time and energy into.

Some of the factors the court will consider are:

  1. Separate or community: First of all, what kind of property is your home: separate or community? And are you certain? Separate property is what belonged to just you or just your spouse before you got married, and sometimes specific inheritances and gifts. Community property is what you purchased together, or improved together while married. Your ex-spouse may have owned their home before you even met them, but if you contributed to the household significantly during the marriage, it could have been changed into community property in the court’s eye.
  2. Child custody: The divorce court’s credo may as well be “best interest of the children.” Whenever two parents divorce, each decision needs to weigh how it will affect their children. This is true for deciding who gets the family home. The parent who earns primary or sole custody rights is more likely the one who keeps the home because it eliminates the stress of moving, possibly to a new neighborhood or city, that children can experience.
  3. Practical considerations: How much money has been put towards the home so far? How much still remains before it is paid off? What is the mortgage amount right now? The court needs to consider whether or not each spouse can afford to keep the home, or if any of them can on their own. If not, it could be more practical just to sell the property and evenly divide the collected value.

Room for Explanations & Arguments

Nothing is set in stone when it comes to legal matters, no matter how serious the legalese on the paperwork. If you are worried that your family home will go to your ex-spouse instead of yourself, don’t just sit idly by and let it go away. Make an argument as to why you should keep the home, refine it, and bring it to court. You never know what will influence the judge to see things your way.

At Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC, our Southern California divorce attorneys can help you understand your property rights and compete for your family home. With more than two centuries of total legal experience focused primarily on family law, you know you can trust us when it comes to even the most complicated of divorce cases. Contact our firm today and ask about scheduling a free consultation over the phone.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Prenup: Lessons for Johnny Depp

by Chandra Moss

As most persons have “heard” by now (pun intended), actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard went through a heavy divorce battle. Unfortunately for Mr. Depp, per media reports, the parties did not sign a prenuptial agreement. Why unfortunate? Because under California’s community property laws, Ms. Heard may be entitled to one-half of all property and income accrued during the short fifteen month marriage.

What is a prenuptial agreement? Under California law, prior to marriage, parties may agree to limit the effects of the state’s community property rules. For example, they can decide what current and future property remains the separate property of a party, waive apportionment of increases in value of businesses during marriage and determine whether future wages and salaries are a party’s separate property and not amenable to division.

Parties to a prenuptial agreement may provide for a method by which community property is obtained, how community expenses are to be paid and whether or not there is a “minimum” community property estate – in other words, a minimum amount of a person’s separate property which would be community upon divorce. Parties may even negotiate, limit or waive spousal support, or alimony as it is often called. These limits might include the maximum amount of total spousal support payable or the term for payment of spousal support.

In Mr. Depp’s case, he may well rue the lack of a prenuptial agreement protecting his estate. Consider this:

  • During his short term marriage to Ms. Heard, Mr. Depp worked on two notable major productions – “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass”. Not only might he be on the hook for giving Ms. Heard 50% of his wages, he may also be paying her 50% of the residuals. Residuals are like a royalty paid to a performer for repeat of the production.
  • Mr. Depp is no doubt the high wage earner of the duo. While this marriage is considered short term by the Court (and therefore spousal support is generally paid for half the length of the marriage), he could be paying out big time to Ms. Heard. The Court might not have issued a spousal support order on an emergency basis, but you can be sure the issue will be “heard” at some date in the near future.

This by no means is a full recitation of what Mr. Depp stood to lose for his failure to plan. While most of us don’t have quite so much to lose, considering a prenuptial agreement to protect separate assets, limit alimony liability and to reduce future litigation can save headaches and costs in the event of a dissolution. If you have any questions about the advantages preparing a prenuptial agreement, please give us a call.

What Happens to Assets Acquired Before Marriage During Divorce?

California is one of only a few states that considers marital property to be communal, meaning it belongs equally to each spouse, regardless as to how the item, asset, or property was actually obtained. You could pay 100% for an item while you are married and half of its value would still technically belong to your spouse. This community property rule for property division is the groundwork for heated disputes in a lot of divorces in the state.

But what about property that you acquired before you were married? Do you have to split that up, too, if you and your spouse call it quits?

Separate Property Rules in California

Separate property is any sort of property – cash, control of businesses, real estate property, material goods, etc. – that you had acquired before marriage. It is called “separate” because it does not get included in community property should you ever divorce. Certain pieces of inheritances or gifts made directly to you in particular can also be considered separate property, even if you are married at the time you obtain them.

You cannot simply assume that your separate property has stayed that way throughout your marriage, however. If your spouse frequently benefitted from a piece of separate property, or if they took reasonable effort to improve upon a piece of separate property, it could become community property. For example, if you owned your home before you got married but then your spouse helped you with renovations that increased its sell-value, they would probably be given a 50% share of that home’s value in your divorce. As another example, if you were given a lump sum of cash in inheritance and used it to fund your spouse’s college education, the money has become community property because it benefitted them and contributed to their lifestyle significantly.

In the end, it is always the safer choice to consult with a Southern California divorce attorney before you get too involved with property division. Without the guidance of a professional lawyer, you could accidentally give up items that are not communal, or illegitimately attempt to hold onto items that actually are not separate. Feel free to contact Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC to speak to our team about your case and options today.

Losing Your Separate Property House


Written by Scott Feig, Esq.

What do you mean the house is no longer mine? I purchased it before I married her. And all the mortgage payments were made from my salary while she stayed home with the children. How can this be?!

This exclamation is often heard in the halls of the Family Law attorney’s office. In fact, all too often a spouse, to his or her dismay, learns that the house that he/she purchased before the marriage is now partially his/her soon-to-be ex-spouse’s upon the dissolution of the marriage. The misconception that so many people share is that the house they purchased before the marriage is 100% percent their house upon divorce. But, in California, this may not necessarily be true. For many people, this is a tough pill to swallow.

So, the best place to start is to understand that California is what we call a community property state. In fact, California is one of only 9 community property states. To keep it simple, without discussing any of the exceptions, generally, community property is all property, such as homes, land, cars, and personal belongings acquired by you or your spouse during the marriage. Note the operative term here—during. Generally, and to keep this very simple, community property is often split up between the spouses at divorce.

Thus, the flip side of this is to understand the other type of property—separate property. You can see where this is going. Generally, separate property is all the property you acquire before the marriage. Again, note the operative term—before. Generally, and to keep it simple, people often keep their separate property at divorce.

So, with this understanding, it makes sense if you are exclaiming: “My house that I purchased before marriage is mine, right?!” To your dismay, possibly not. Up until the date of marriage, the house was your separate property. But let’s look closely at the mortgage payments. If you paid the mortgage from your salary, note that California considers your salary community property, absent an agreement to the contrary, because your effort to earn it is a community effort, even when the other spouse stayed home with the children. Again, this may be a tough pill to swallow.

Thus, during the marriage, when you paid the mortgage on “your” house, the community began to earn a percentage in the home. Some of it depends on how much you paid down the mortgage during the marriage. The community may have a 10%, 20%, 30% or even much more interest. And, remember what was said above, generally community property is divided at divorce. So, at divorce, you may find yourself having to split part of the value of “your” house with your ex-spouse.

Please note that the above information was kept in simplest form to help give you a primer of a situation that surprises many people at divorce. As many areas of law, the complexity is understood and handled well by an attorney. Thus, it’s helpful to know that an experienced Family Law attorney is a phone call, or email, away to help provide guidance both before the marriage and at the difficult time of dissolving the marriage.

Divorce & Inheritance

Regardless of your current situation, a divorce can be emotionally draining, financially taxing and stressful for everyone involved.

Whether you’re on the receiving end or the giving end of an inheritance, divorce can throw a curve ball into your plans for the money. Inheritance rights can become complicated during a divorce – your spouse may be able to claim a part of your inheritance, as part of the property settlement agreement. This is where it is highly recommended to have the an experienced divorce attorney give you a clear understanding of what monies are considered marital property and should be included during the settlement agreement.

If you have received an inheritance while married, you run the risk of turning your inheritance into community property if you commingle the inherited funds or property. Commingling is the act of mixing the funds belonging to one party with those of another party. For example, placing inheritance funds into a joint account will commingle the inheritance – thus, making it marital property.

However, on the other hand, if you receive an inheritance while you’re married, it’s yours – as long as you keep it separate from marital assets.

So, if you divorce down the road and your inheritance remains separate property, the court won’t order you to give a portion to your spouse as long as you take some precautions:

  • Consult with an attorney to draw up a post nuptial agreement, for extra protection, stating that your spouse has no interest in your inheritance in the event of a divorce – make sure he or she signs it.
  • Don’t do anything with your inheritance that might make it appear that you intended to share it with your spouse. The court may consider it marital property in that case.
  • If you decide to leave your married child an inheritance, it is wise to transfer your bequest to her through a trust rather than a last will and testament.

To learn more about how you can protect your assets whether you are married or about to be, or thinking of divorce there are still options available for you to safe guard your finances, click here.

Another matter to keep in mind is that most people who are marrying do not often think about protecting themselves from their future spouses. After all, marriage is supposed to be forever. However, in California and the rest of the country, about half of first marriages end in divorce.

Dissolving a marriage brings about financial conflicts, including inheritance rights. Although this may be a very difficult time in your life, it is important to understand that an experienced family divorce lawyer can make a real difference in not only guiding you through the legal process, but also helping you secure what you deserve.

Contact the family law offices of Holstrom, Block & Parke with convenient offices in Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. We will answer your questions and address your concerns with the importance they deserve.

What are Preliminary Financial Disclosures?

California is a community property state when it comes to divorce.Community property includes everything acquired during the marriage, such as assets, liabilities and pensions.

An important required step in the divorce process is preparing and exchanging preliminary financial disclosures. A judge will not grant a divorce without this information.

California law requires each party to fill out preliminary financial disclosure form FL-150, Income & Expense Declaration, and FL-142, Schedule of Assets and Debts which identifies all separate property and community property.

These forms are important because they help the parties and the court to identify the entire community estate. By preparing a preliminary disclosure, you disclose your financial situation – what you owed and owned with your spouse. Even though they may look easy to fill out, they are filled with legal complexities.

What happens if you or your spouse intentionally refuses to list all assets and debts? Negligent omissions of assets and debts, including separate property, can lead to devastating results for both parties. For example, you can lose out on your share of a community asset.

Never assume that any asset in your name alone, regardless of when it was acquired, is your own separate property.

Another consequence of not disclosing all assets and/or debts is possible court punishment to the guilty party.

According to California Family Code Section 2100(a), (b), (c) and 2120(a),“California law recognizes the vital importance of full and accurate disclosure of assets, liabilities, and financial circumstances at the early stages of a marital action in order to ensure a proper division of the community estate and fair and sufficient child and spousal support awards”.

If you would like assistance in completing your Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure forms or with any family law issue, please contact the family law offices of Holstrom, Sissung, Marks & Anderson, located in Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino Counties.

We are committed to providing you with the information you need to make informed decisions about your divorce and your family needs. We are here to protect you.

Don't Leave Your Estate In California's Hands

Every adult should have an estate plan. Whether your planning needs are simple or extremely complex, you need a plan that is customized to your assets, your family structure and your goals.

Whether you choose to have a Will or a Living Trust, both provide for the distribution of your estate upon your death. Deciding which fits your needs depends on your specific circumstances.

A Will is a legal document that allows you to choose your beneficiaries and leave them specific items from your estate. You will need to designate an executor to carry out your wishes. In addition, it gives you the chance to nominate a guardian if you have minor children. It is subject to probate and comes into effect upon your death.

As for costs to prepare, a Will costs less than a Trust; however, costs to probate a Will can be substantial.

Even though a Will comes into play upon your death, a Living Trust can start benefiting you while you are still alive. It allows you to transfer substantially all of your property into your Trust during your lifetime and it is revocable, which means you can make changes. It will be used to manage your property before and after your death, as well as provide how your assets will be distributed after your death. If you become disabled or incapacitated, the Trust is in place to manage your financial affairs. A great benefit is that it is not subject to probate and all provisions will remain private.

As for costs to prepare, fund and manage, a Living Trust costs more than a Will; however, it avoids probate costs if all assets were held by the Trust.

If you die without a Will or Living Trust, your estate will be handled and your assets distributed by the court – probably to your spouse or closest heirs. This may or may not be what you wanted.

Estate planning involves difficult decisions about your personal matters. It demands individualized solutions for your objectives.

Whether you’re just beginning the estate planning process, or you need to update an existing plan, contact the Orange County Family Law offices of Holstrom, Block & Parke because we take pride in providing experienced counsel with excellent service in determining the right estate planning tools for your family.

About Dayn Holstrom

Dayn Holstrom is a hard working, compassionate problem solver who welcomes the opportunity to serve you in any way he can. His maximum availability to your questions and concerns begins with your free initial consultation. He is well-seasoned in all matters related to family law and a skilled negotiator and litigator.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.