Larry King’s Death Highlights the Importance an Updated Estate Plan for Divorce and Death—Part One

Updated: Apr 6

larry king passed away without an estate plan death divorce lessons we can learn

Legendary TV and radio host, Larry King, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on January 23rd, 2021 at age 87. Larry was hospitalized in December due to COVID-19, but he’d recently been moved from the ICU to a regular hospital room after recovering from the virus. However, the famed broadcaster suffered from a number of other health conditions over the years, including multiple heart attacks, kidney failure, and diabetes, and he passed away from sepsis that was the result of an unrelated infection.

With a career spanning more than half a century, Larry became the most famous interviewer of his generation as the host of CNN’s Larry King Live, a follow-up to his nationwide call-in radio show, The Larry King Show, which started in 1978. Larry retired from CNN in 2010, but up until the very end, he still hosted the streaming video cast “Larry King Now” on Hulu and RT America.

With his success in the media and the fact he continued working long after most people would have retired, Larry amassed a fortune estimated to be worth some $50 million. In addition to Larry’s fame as a broadcaster, he also became equally well known for his numerous marriages. Starting at age 19, the media mogul got married a total of eight times to seven different women (one of them, he married twice).

With so many marriages, Larry also had multiple children. He was the father of five children: Chaia King, Larry King Jr., Cannon Edward King, Chance Armstrong King, and Andy King. Larry also had nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. With so much money, so many spouses, and so many children, it was practically guaranteed there would be some conflict over Larry’s estate following his death.

However, three factors are sure to make settling his estate especially troublesome.

First, Larry was in the middle of negotiating a divorce settlement with his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick King, 61, when he passed away. Second, in October 2019, Larry created a new handwritten will, which stipulated that $2 million of his estate should be equally divided among his five children upon his death, yet the document makes no mention of his seventh wife.

And finally, two of the five children—Andy, 65, and Chaia, 51, —named in Larry’s new will died within weeks of one another in August 2020, yet it seems Larry failed to amend his handwritten will to reflect their deaths.

Given Larry’s immense wealth and the fact that his seventh wife claims they worked with estate planning lawyers in the past, it’s likely that he had other estate planning vehicles, such as trusts, in place to protect and pass on some of his assets. But since trusts are private and their contents generally aren’t made available to the public, we don’t know the full details of Larry’s estate plan.

That said, in light of his impending divorce, the existence of the new handwritten will, and the recent death of two of Larry’s children, it’s almost certain that there will be a major court fight between Larry’s seventh wife and his surviving children over the $2 million in assets listed in the new will. In fact, Shawn has already announced that she plans to contest the handwritten will.

In the end, the fallout from this legal battle could make Larry famous for another reason—failed estate planning. However, with the proper planning, nearly all of the impending conflict over Larry’s estate could have been avoided. On that note, here we’ll outline several planning lessons we can learn from Larry’s death.

Till Death Do Us Part

The first factor that makes Larry’s case so contentious is his last divorce—or lack thereof. Larry filed for divorce from his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick King, in August 2019. As with most divorces, it can take some time for the two parties to reach a final settlement arrangement (especially when it’s a long marriage like the King’s, who were married for 23 years), and Shawn and Larry were apparently still negotiating their divorce settlement when he died in January 2021.

According to The Wealth Advisor, at the time of his death, Larry was paying Shawn spousal support as part of their ongoing divorce negotiation, and she was reportedly seeking $1 million in annual spousal support as part of that deal. However, given that Larry died before the divorce was finalized, Shawn could inherit far more than that—and this is true in spite of the existence of Larry’s new will or even prior estate plans.

The reason Shawn stands to inherit so much is because California is a community-property state. Under California’s community-property laws, unless there was a prenuptial agreement or post-nuptial agreement stating otherwise, Shawn is entitled to 50% of any marital assets acquired during marriage, regardless of what Larry’s estate plan leaves her. Given that the couple was married for more than two decades, Shawn’s ultimate inheritance will likely far exceed the $1 million per year she was seeking in the divorce settlement, which is something Larry likely would have wanted to avoid. What’s more, given that Shawn is planning to contest Larry’s new will in court, Larry’s surviving children are now facing the prospect of a costly legal battle.

This brings us to our first estate planning lesson.

Lesson #1: Update your estate plan as soon as divorce is inevitable

Although Larry attempted to do the right thing by creating the new will, he should have taken the time to work with legal counsel to properly update his plan once he knew he was getting divorced—and ideally, before the divorce was filed. As we pointed out in a prior blog post about estate planning and divorce