What Mistake Did Hollywood Director John Singleton Make with his Estate?

What Mistake Did Hollywood Director John Singleton Make with his Estate?

Hollywood director John Singleton didn’t do his family any favors by committing the most common mistake when it came to planning an estate: procrastination.

Forbes’ recent article, “The John Singleton Estate Teaches Why No One Should Procrastinate Updating Their Will” explains that after Singleton died in April at age 51 from a stroke, he only had an outdated will from 1993. Although he was unmarried when he died, he left behind at least five children and two other minor daughters, who may be his offspring. The family has already publicly disagreed about important issues like if he was to recover from the stroke, who should serve as his conservator. They even fought over his cause of his death, after he was brought to the hospital under mysterious circumstances.

Couple this acrimony with an outdated will, and Singleton’s family can expect many years of headaches, stress and legal battles about his estate. There will also be some hefty legal fees. Singleton died with only a will in place, so his estate will go through the probate court process. This has already led to more fighting, and will likely mean more legal disputes.

Singleton’s mother, Sheila Ward, filed to open the probate proceeding and asked the court to admit his 1993 will. At the time he signed it, Singleton was a relatively new director and had only one child, daughter Justice. Ward reported that Singleton had assets worth $3.8 million. She listed his heirs, which include five acknowledged children, plus two minor daughters, each of whom she designated as an “Alleged Daughter.” So it’s unclear if the two are really his biological daughters.

However, some websites have reported that Singleton’s net worth was around $35M when he died. It is believed that the filing only listed a small fraction of his wealth, because he may have had a trust that contained the remainder of his assets. It’s possible but unlikely, in light of the fact that it would be very unusual for someone to set up a trust and not at the same time create or update his will to a “pourover” will.

Pourover wills work in concert with trusts, so that any assets not transferred into a trust during someone’s lifetime are then passed into the trust through the probate court process after they die. As the name implies, the will “pours” the assets from the probate estate into the trust. Singleton’s 1993 will was already admitted into probate, so it was his last unrevoked will created during his life, and it wasn’t a pourover will.

His mother, who’s the personal representative of his estate, recently filed a new document asking for the court to approve a settlement worth $515,472 based on Singleton’s claim for a greater share of royalties from Sony Pictures arising from his 2001 movie, Baby Boy. The filing says that Singleton reached a settlement in this amount before he died, but the settlement was never signed or finalized due to his untimely stroke. This money would be added to his estate.

Under his 1993 will, only his daughter Justice will inherit the millions of dollars of her dad’s estate.  However, the other kids aren’t out of luck. Singleton’s will doesn’t control their inheritance, because they were born after he signed his will. California’s probate law permits any after-born children to inherit equally with children living when the will was signed, with exceptions (like if a child was taken care of in other ways, such as a life insurance policy).

There’s still the question of how many of the children are really his. The paternity of the two minor daughters wasn’t established. That may be another probate fight.

The lesson of all of this, is to work with a qualified estate planning attorney to be certain that you have an up-to-date will, as well as other important estate planning documents.

Few people expect to pass away at such a young age, like Singleton, but no one is promised tomorrow. Don’t procrastinate creating an estate plan, believing that you can take care of it “someday.”

Reference: Forbes (November 4, 2019) “The John Singleton Estate Teaches Why No One Should Procrastinate Updating Their Will”