Celebrity Estate Lessons: Heath Ledger
April 25th, 2022
Today's case is an interesting one, involving both a very common mistake wrapped inside a less common mistake. An important part of any person's probate is based on where a person is domiciled (aka where they officially live) at the time of their death. So, for example, if you were a snow bird who lived part of the year in Florida and part of the year in Wisconsin, only one of those would be considered your domicile. Another example would be if you officially declared your domicile on legal paperwork in, say, Australia and then lived and worked in the US without updating your paperwork, like Heath Ledger did, only one of those countries would be considered your domicile.
In 2003 Ledger had his estate plan written in his homeland. He then went on to become an Oscar winning actor, have a child, sell his residence in Western Australia, and move to New York City.
But Ledger never updated his Will, which split his entire estate half to his siblings and half to his parents via a trust. Another potential wrinkle could have been Ledger's immigration status, as US citizens and resident aliens are subject to taxes on their worldwide assets, but non resident aliens only pay taxes on US assets. One would assume that the non-resident alien's country's tax laws would also come into play.
Beyond where Ledger was domiciled was the issue of his pretermitted (fancy legal term meaning accidentally left out of a Will) daughter. As Ledger never updated his Will, she was not set to inherit anything. Luckily, things worked out for her, though, as his family agreed to put his entire fortune into a Trust for her sole benefit.
Interestingly, in Florida there is a law on the books addressing this exact issue. Under Florida's statute, the Will must have been written before the child's birth and it has to appear from the documents that the child wasn't intentionally omitted. In this case, the child would inherit whatever they would have gotten if there had been no Will at all.
So, once again, update your Will whenever something major happens in your life. This could include the birth of a child, a divorce, moving to a new country or even just a new state, or a major change in income based on the release of the movie with your breakthrough role that earned you an Oscar nomination. You know, your typical everyday life events.
Oh and if you're wondering, I couldn't find where he was determined to be domiciled.