Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories.
And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.
Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.
While the documentary’s dark, twisted plot is far too complicated to fully summarize, it focuses primarily on the bitter rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, who are both owners and breeders of big cats. Joe, the self-professed “Tiger King,” whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, runs a shoddy roadside zoo in Oklahoma filled with more than a hundred tigers, lions, and other assorted animals.
Don, a fellow big-cat enthusiast who helped Baskin start Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997 and hasn’t been seen since. After having him declared legally dead in 2002, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will that left her nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets.
Carole was not only listed as Don’s executor in the will she presented, but she also produced a document in which Don granted her power of attorney. However, the planning documents Carole produced were deemed suspicious by multiple people who were close to Don for several reasons.
If you’d like a more comprehensive plot summary for the Tiger King, click here. While there’s a lot more to the story surrounding Don’s planning documents and Carole’s suspicious actions, let’s first look at the planning mistakes Don made and how they could have been easily prevented. Lesson 1: Always work with an experienced estate planning lawyer when creating or updating your planning documents, especially if you have a blended family. If Don’s children and assistant are correct in their claim that Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate and disinherited Carole, it appears he did so without the assistance of an attorney. This was his first big mistake. There are numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning websites that allow you to create various planning documents within a matter of minutes for relatively little expense. Yet, as we can see here, when you use DIY estate planning instead of the services of a trusted advisor guiding you and your family, the documents can easily disappear or be changed without anyone who can testify to what you really wanted. In the end—and when it’s too late—taking the DIY route can cost your family far more than not creating any plan at all.
Even if you think your particular planning situation is simple, that turns out to almost never be the case. As we covered in a previous article, there are a number of complications inherent to DIY estate plans that can cause them to be ruled invalid by a court, while also creating unnecessary conflict and expense for the very people you are trying to protect with your plan.
And while it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents; this is exponentially true when you have a blended family like Don’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there’s an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there’s significant wealth at stake. The risk for conflict is significantly increased if you are seeking to disinherit or favor one part of your family over another, as Don was claimed to have done with Carole. In fact, Florida law prevents one spouse from completely disinheriting the other in their estate plan, so unless Don was aware of this fact when he cut Carole out of his will, she would still be entitled to one-third of his assets upon his death, no matter what his will stipulated. By creating your own plan, even with the help of a DIY service, you won’t be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, however, we are not only specially trained to predict and prevent such conflicts, but our unique planning process can actually help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is our special sauce.
Finally, as we saw with Don, if your loved ones can’t find your planning documents—whether because they were misplaced or stolen—it’s as if they never existed in the first place. Yet, if Don had enlisted the support of an experienced planning professional like us, his documents would have been safeguarded from being lost, stolen, or destroyed. When we create or update a plan for our clients, it’s standard practice to not only keep current copies in our office, but we also ensure that everyone affected by the plan is provided with the latest updated copies, and any older versions are discarded. Moreover, we ensure all beneficiaries of your plan know exactly what to do in the event of our client’s death, so your family can immediately put the necessary legal actions in motion to properly manage your estate.
If you’ve yet to create a plan, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been reviewed in more than a year, meet with us, and we can ensure that your plan will remain safe and work exactly as intended if something should happen to you.
Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the estate planning lessons you can learn from the Netflix documentary Tiger King.