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3 Lessons Prince Left Agents and Advisors

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Prince Rogers Nelson, the musician known as Prince, died one year ago today, at the age of 57.

He died with no known spouse, no known living children, no living parents, one known living sister, five known living half-siblings, an estate that appears to be worth somewhere between $100 million and $300 million, and, apparently, nothing resembling a will or estate plan.

(Related: Questions Persist Around Settling Prince’s Estate)

Efforts to untangle Nelson’s estate are so public that the Carver County District Court has created a website section just for documents related to the Nelson estate.

Judge Kevin Eide, the Carver County judge presiding over the probate proceedings, ruled in January that Comerica Bank & Trust N.A. should serve as the administrator. The likely heirs and people who are hoping to be classified as heirs are still battling over basic matters such as the accuracy of the genetic of heirs not currently classified as Nelson’s close relatives.

The obvious lesson from the Prince estate story for insurance agents, financial advisors, estate planning lawyers and other advisors is that they should try to persuade their clients to do a much better job of getting their affairs in order.

Here are some other thoughts about what the story means.

The Brain (Image: Thinkstock)

The Brain (Image: Thinkstock)

1. People are mysterious.

Nelson built a major music business and was involved in a ferocious legal fight with a record company, Warner Brothers, for years.

He obviously knew many lawyers, and he was obviously bright enough and worldly enough that even many ordinary people have wills.

He might have avoided establishing an estate plan simply because he was careless, or simply because he never received the right pitch from the right financial or legal professional, but he might have made a conscious choice to avoid thinking about the future, or to avoid thinking about his relationship with his sibling and half-siblings.

For financial professionals, knowing what clients really want is always difficult.

One of the great battles for agents and advisors is to try to overcome the psychological barriers that keep people from taking good care of themselves, and their loved ones.

(Related: The Love Letter Strategy)

In the end, however, we come into this world alone and depart alone. There’s only so much advisors can do to guide people onto what advisors believe to be the right path.

2. Asset preservation planning is often an important part of estate planning.

Nelson owned a complicated collection of intellectual property, and the rights to many complicated streams of income.

Lawyers seeking payment from the Nelson estate have pointed out in court pleadings that they have provided many unusual, sophisticated services for the estate.

Two of those attorneys, Frank Wheaton and Justin Bruntjen, reported in March, in a memorandum justifying their requests for payment, that they have handled tasks such as identifying Nelson’s true heirs and fending off challenges from challengers who appear not to be related to Nelson.

Matthew Shea, another attorney, said he handled tasks such as organizing a tribute concert, working with reporters, resolving advisor-to-advisor disputes, and managing the home and other real estate holdings in the Nelson estate.

Few ordinary clients will ever have an estate as complicated as Nelson’s, but one take-away is that preserving the value of the estates of many high-net-worth clients, or even moderately affluent clients, will take plenty of hard work and careful thought. The more clients and their planners and advisors think in advance about how to preserve small businesses, primary residences, vacation homes and other estate assets, the better.

Planners may, for example, want to use annuities or other mechanisms to create a stream of the income needed to administer complicated assets. 

3. Family trees are beautiful.

For the administrator overseeing the Nelson estate, one of the biggest challenges has been understanding Nelson’s family.

In the beginning, Tyka Nelson, Nelson’s sister, told the court she was not even sure who her brother’s heirs and likely potential heirs were.

Other people trying to handle the estates of relatives who die with wills often face similar problems.

One way agents, advisors and financial services companies might be able to help, a little, is to encourage people to create family trees, either online or on paper, and put the family trees somewhere whether people can get to them.

Even if any trees created are incomplete and unofficial, they might give the people trying to locate the heirs of an intestate decedent a place to start.

— Read 7 Lessons on Success From Hollywood A-Lister Will Smith on ThinkAdvisor.