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Estate Planning Lessons from the Grateful Dead

In the past few weeks there has been a consistent theme surfacing with my clients that had me thinking about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead . (I realize that as an estate planner, talking about a band called “Grateful Dead” might sound odd, or perhaps even disturbing, but I digress.) Many of my clients are beneficiaries in wills who are dealing with incompetent executors . As a firm who handles estate administration cases, there is nothing worse than an incompetent executor, and nothing better than a great executor. Which leads to us Jerry.

In 1995, Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at 53 years old.

Jerry’s estate was worth a little under $7 million, which does not include royalties for his music and other passions (yes, I’m referring to the ice cream flavor Cherry Garcia !).

Jerry’s last will appointed his third wife Deborah as co-executrix of his estate. Deborah was also a 1/3 beneficiary of his estate (which is common under many states’ elective share laws ). Garcia also included support for his second wife, Carolyn, and child support for his daughter Keelin.

Deborah decided to cut off alimony payments to Carolyn, and so Carolyn sued Deborah for breaching her fiduciary duty as executrix of Jerry’s estate. Carolyn eventually won in court, but she had to settle for much less than her judgment because she wanted to end the case quickly and avoid being locked in court for many years to come.

The point of this story, and the stories of my clients, is that choosing your executor is not something that should be taken lightly. Do not just choose someone because they are your oldest child, or because you are too lazy to think of anyone else. Choose someone responsible, trustworthy, someone who will get it right. It’s usually wiser to choose someone who is trustworthy and honest even if you think you might insult one of your children.

Calmly explain in a “ letter of instruction ” that you love your children, but you thought this other person or institution was the right choice for your estate. They might be angry in the short run, but when your estate is settled amicably, and everyone receives his or her fair share, you’ll cause less strife in the long run. And, most importantly, your children will remember you as someone who promoted peace in all stages of life.