Prince's will saga: dramatic but not surprising

What happens if you don't have a will?
What happens if you don't have a will?

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What happens if you don't have a will? 00:56

Story highlights

  • Danny Cevallos: Should it really surprise us that Prince died without a will?
  • The majority of Americans have no will or estate plan, he says

Danny Cevallos is a CNN Legal Analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As the entire world knows, Prince died last week at the age of 57, leaving behind an estate worth millions of dollars, along with music and other intellectual property of inestimable value.

Amazingly enough, Prince also died without a will.
The Prince the public never knew
The Prince the public never knew

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Before you express too much astonishment that someone so wealthy and powerful left no will, however, ask yourself: do you have one? If the answer is no, should it really be that surprising that Prince didn't?
    If you don't have a will, you're not alone in America. According to the American Bar Association, 55 percent of all Americans—regardless of wealth or status—die without a will or estate plan in place, and some surveys put the number as high as 64 percent. For some reason, many people who should have wills, whether because of their age or financial situation, just don't.
    It's hard to zero in on why. Maybe because it's depressing to think about needing one. Maybe it's because we know we won't be around when our estates are distributed, so we let it slide.
    Who decides fate of Prince's music 'vault'?
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    So what will happen to Prince's estate? When a person dies without a will, or what the law calls "intestate," the estate property is distributed according to state succession laws. In Prince's case, because he was a resident of Minnesota, that state's law will determine his heirs.
    As with most states, a surviving spouse is first in line. In Minnesota, a spouse gets the entire estate if there are no children, or the first $150,000, plus one-half of any balance, if, for example, the deceased had children that were stepchildren to that spouse.
    If there is no spouse, as was the case with Prince, the law provides an order of succession. Like many other states, Minnesota dictates that if there's no spouse, the children get the estate. If there are no children or grandchildren, then the parents inherit.
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    If no parents are alive, then siblings, nephews, and grandnephews inherit—and on and on—all the way to first cousins twice-removed. I don't even know what that means, let alone whether I even have those. And, if no heirs can be found, it may not surprise you to learn that your property eventually goes to the state—a process called "escheating."
    With Prince's estate, finding heirs who are willing to come forward and inherit won't be a problem. Six siblings, including half siblings, have already filed papers in court to begin the probate process. Under Minnesota law, half siblings inherit as if they were whole siblings. That's a controversial rule, considering all the dads who run away to Florida with some cocktail waitress and sire a new family of half siblings—blood relatives that the deceased sibling may have never met, let alone grown up with.
    Had Prince left a will, it might have contained gifts and provisions as creative as his music and fashion. The more unusual a will, the more vulnerable it might be to a contest; a disinherited friend or family member can always attack a will by claiming it was the product of undue influence, or that the deceased lacked the capacity to prepare a will. If nothing else then, the probate process here may ultimately be less messy than it could have been: there are siblings, and the law says they should share in the estate.
    But the real question about Prince's estate isn't who gets it—it's what is done with what's in it. Here's where Prince's example—as far removed as it may seem from our own daily lives—reinforces why everyone should have a will. For Prince's family and inner circle, a will could have provided some guidance about how he wanted his priceless treasure trove of music and other works to be used. Wills, trusts and other legal instruments can be an effective way to carry out one's wishes even after they are not around to have them anymore.
    Admittedly, there's a big difference between the fortunes of Paisley Park and our own assets. Let's be honest: if you're a single, rudderless forty-something whose assets consist of some commemorative plates and a rusted Dodge Dart, your family won't be racing to probate court after your funeral. But if you have children or a spouse, planning ahead for the worst will give you some peace of mind.
    For instance, because Prince didn't leave any enforceable rules about what to do with his music, his heirs can do what they want. And that's where it's going to get interesting. It's one thing to divvy up dollars among six people, but how do you divide a guitar collection, or "Purple Rain," or an unfinished piece of music, among heirs? And what if they don't agree on how to use or sell those things? That's when the situation could really go crazy.
    Ultimately, the probate of Prince's estate and the saga that results will reinforce two sobering realities: that all of us should have a will, but most of us still won't bother to get one made.