Case Study: Asset Protection and the "Dumb Blonde"

If you watch television, you have probably seen (or at least heard of) the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. The show is about some nerdy, socially awkward scientists who befriend their attractive neighbor, a stereotypical “dumb blonde” named Penny. Penny is played by Kaley Cuoco, who plays the role brilliantly. She is so convincing, in fact, that the audience is tempted to believe that she, too, is a “dumb blonde.” But appearances can be deceiving. Let’s compare her to some other stars that have made the news in the past few years.

Almost everyone knows the musician Prince (AKA the artist formerly known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”), who died in 2016. He was an incredibly talented musician who played 27 musical instruments, had a gifted set of vocal chords, and was considered by many to be a “musical genius” (though perhaps not an “acting genius” to those who have seen Purple Rain). He was so successful that at the time of his death, his estate was rumored to be valued between $150 and $300 million.

Frank Zappa, another renowned musician and producer, died in 1993. A musical legend, he was also (in)famous for the unique names he gave his four children — Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet, and Diva. Zappa was forward-thinking and created the Zappa Family Trust, which owned (among other assets) all his rights to his massive music portfolio. He was survived by children and his wife, whom he left in charge of the trust. The estate was estimated to be worth $40 million at the time of his death. Zappa’s wife Gail died in 2015.

Of these individuals, who would you consider the smartest: the producer, the musician, or the “dumb blonde”?

In 2016, a Minnesota probate court judge denied the claims of 29 individuals seeking status as heirs of Prince’s estate. In addition, the judge required genetic testing for several of Prince’s alleged half-siblings. There was no Will, no Trust, no tax planning. The estate will eventually be divided among his siblings. There is also the matter of the federal estate tax, estimated to be more than $100 million. It’s safe to assume that lawyers, accountants, and creditors will take a similar “chunk” out of the estate before it ever gets to those siblings, all of whom will have carte blanche to spend their shares of the estate in whatever way they wish, without restriction. I would venture to guess most of Prince’s siblings don’t have experience handling multi-million dollar investment portfolios.

In 2015, shortly before her death, Frank Zappa’s wife — dying of lung cancer — said to her daughter, Moon Unit, “Do you forgive me for what I’ve done?” The daughter replied, “Sure”, not knowing what her mother was talking about. After her mother’s death, Moon and her siblings learned that Gail had put the two younger children — Ahmet and Diva — in charge of the family trust, giving Dweezil and Moon a smaller portion of the estate. Gail also left the trust millions of dollars in debt. Now, the four siblings are pitted against each other over the management and distribution of the trust estate, incurring fees and costs and, not surprisingly, creating a fracture in the family that may never heal.

Could both of these tragedies — the estates of Prince and Frank Zappa — have been avoided? Yes, and quite easily. With a Last Will and Testament, Prince could have dictated the distribution of his estate, instead of leaving it to a judge to decide. With a Trust, he could have kept the distribution of his estate private, provided for the future professional management of the estate, and limited distributions to heirs who might not be financially responsible. He also could have included provisions to potentially eliminate his estate tax burden and substantially reduced the costs and fees associated with the administration of his estate.

Frank was smart enough to have a Trust. However, with proper advice and counsel, he could have put professionals in charge of that Trust and not left the distribution to the whims of his wife. This simple change could have saved the estate millions of dollars and prevented a rift that threatens to ruin the relationships among his children. In the end, both of these musical “geniuses” were not so smart when it came to planning their estates.

But what about the girl who plays the “dumb blonde,” Kaley Cuoco? On December 31, 2013, she married tennis pro Ryan Sweeting. They had dated only six months. After just 21 months of marriage, they got divorced. At the time of the divorce, Cuoco had a net worth of more than $45 million. Yet, as a result of a professionally prepared prenuptial agreement she and Ryan signed before they said “I do,” she got to keep (1) her $72 million TV contract; (2) her Sherman Oaks home, valued at nearly $3 million; and (3) the LA house she purchased from Khloe Kardashian, valued at more than $5 million. All she had to do was pay her ex-husband $165,000, pay some of his $195,000 of debt, and pay $55,000 of his legal fees.

Now who’s the dumb blonde?

Prince did nothing. Why? Maybe he wasn’t planning on dying.

Frank Zappa had an estate plan but didn’t quite think it all the way through. What was his error? Putting the wrong person in charge of his estate.

Of the three examples, Kaley Cuoco is the only one who got it right when it comes to asset protection. With proper legal representation, she avoided what could have been a catastrophic loss and many years of court battles (i.e., years of legal fees and other expenses).

Asset protection — whether preparing for death, incapacity, divorce, or some other contingency — is more than just filling in documents. It takes thoughtful consideration of all the “what ifs” and the expertise and experience of an attorney who can help you achieve your goals. Contact Postic & Bates today for a free, no-obligation consultation to determine how you can best protect your assets.

[As with all our posts, the contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are subject to our site-wide disclaimer.]