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Fallen star's informal estate document may trigger will contest

Estate planning professionals do their best to try to convince people of the importance of maintaining at least the basic necessities for efficient probate administration but, as Twin Cities readers may know, the majority of Americans have not even go so far as to make out a simple will. As much as these statistics may rankle professionals, the real shock comes when we learn of wealthy individuals who have not taken basic steps toward proper estate planning. According to recent reports, the failure of actress and singer-songwriter Jenni Rivera to execute a formal will may place her affairs among the latest of celebrity estates to become embroiled in probate litigation.

The celebrity's unexpected death in an early December plane crash left behind a somewhat tangled web of potential heirs and beneficiaries. She leaves behind three children from a youthful and abusive marriage as well as two more children from her second husband, who died in 2009. Divorce proceedings were underway in her third marriage to baseball professional Esteban Loaiza, but the divorce had not been finalized at the time of the celebrity's death.

In most cases, a surviving spouse will be deemed the default beneficiary and executor of the deceased spouse's estate unless a will instructs otherwise. Complicating matters in the celebrity's case is the revelation that she left behind a letter purportedly bequeathing control of her assorted assets and business interests, along with guardianship of the two children from her second marriage, to her sister.

The celebrity's estate has not yet been opened up for administration, and it remains to be seen whether formal estate instruments will surface. As it stands now, observers wonder whether state law will treat the informal letter as sufficient evidence of the testator's wishes to serve as a valid will. If not, the celebrity's tragic death may lead to an almost equally tragic probate dispute.

Source: Forbes, "Jenni Rivera's Estate Heading For Turmoil," Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Jan. 7, 2013

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