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Julie Garber

Ronni Chasen's Estate Teaches Two Valuable Estate Planning Lessons

By December 8, 2010

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The murder of publicist Ronni Chasen on November 16 in Beverly Hills has certainly caused a stir in Tinseltown. Aside from the ongoing search for Ms. Chasen's killer, on November 30 a Petition for Probate of Chasen's estate was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. While the petition was accompanied by a 51-page Last Will and Testament signed by Ms. Chasen in June 1994, it was also accompanied by an affidavit signed by Los Angeles attorney James M.A. Murphy which states that he prepared a new will for the slain publicist in 2006 and he suspects that it is being stored in Ms. Chasen's safe deposit box.

So while I've taken the time to read the 51-page will and could have written a summary of its contents, since Mr. Murphy knows there is a later will, I'll just wait to see if and when it surfaces since its terms could be significantly different from the 1994 will. (If you would really like to read a copy of the 51-page will or a summary of its contents, then refer to Ronni Chasen's Will: A Woman of Serious Means and Was Slain Hollywood Publicist Ronni Chasen Really Worth Millions? And Who Got Stiffed in Her Will?).

In any case, I've decided to write about Ms. Chasen's estate before the 2006 will is located for two important reasons:

  1. A lesson in estate planning privacy. The Petition for Probate provides a summary of Ms. Chasen's assets - $4.7 million in personal property, annual gross income of $500,000 from personal property, $900,000 in real estate, for a total estimated value of $6.1 million - and all of the names and addresses of the executors and beneficiaries listed in the 1994 will. (Read a copy of the Petition for Probate here and see it all for yourself.) This exposes one of the true weaknesses of relying on a Last Will and Testament as the governing document of your estate plan - complete lack of privacy during a difficult time. If Ms. Chasen had simply established a Revocable Living Trust and funded her assets into it before she died, then the details about her assets, executors, and beneficiaries would have been kept a private family matter and not made a public probate matter.

  2. A lesson in business exit planning. The Petition for Probate, 1994 will and Murphy affidavit were filed with an extreme sense of urgency because, surprisingly, Ms. Chasen operated her successful public relations firm, Chasen & Company, as a sole proprietorship. This means that her employees have been stuck trying to keep the business going during the impending Oscar season (Oscars will be awarded on Feb. 27, 2011) without any access to the company's bank accounts. Kind of hard to pay the bills and run a business without access to its cash, isn't it? If Ms. Chasen had created a business entity, such as a corporation or limited liability company, to keep the company up and running after her death, then the sense of urgency in filing for probate of a will that is known to have been superseded would have been avoided. And even if Ms. Chasen didn't want to create a business entity, had she simply established that Revocable Living Trust discussed above, then she could have assigned her interest in the company to the trust and titled her bank accounts in the name of the trust so that her successor Trustees could continue to run the business after her death.

The moral of the story - avoiding probate means avoiding the very public probate process. If privacy and business continuity are concerns of yours, then consider a fully funded Revocable Living Trust as the governing document of your estate plan.

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