Lessons from Gary Coleman’s messy estate
You may remember Gary Coleman, the child actor from the 1970s show “Diff’rent Strokes.” Coleman died on May 28, 2010, in Provo, Utah, from an intracranial hemorrhage. There is much that can be learned from Coleman’s less-than-perfect estate plan. However, to understand where Coleman went wrong, some context is needed.
Coleman, like many child actors, had a very sad and tragic life. After “Diff’rent Strokes” ended its successful eight year run, Coleman sued his parents for misappropriating millions of dollars in his trust fund. Coleman prevailed against his parents, but his opportunities as an actor began to dry up and sent him into a downward spiral. Coleman admitted attempting suicide several times and had several run-ins with the law as a result of anger issues.
In August 2007, Coleman married aspiring young actress Shannon Price, and the couple divorced less than a year later. Coleman and Price even capitalized on their dissolution by appearing on the television show Divorce Court. Following the divorce, Coleman and Price began cohabitating. Price has alleged that even though they were divorced, they continued living as husband and wife.
Then, on May 26, 2010, Price called 911 and reported that she found Coleman on the floor with blood everywhere. Following Coleman’s admission to the hospital, he fell into a coma and was placed on life support. On May 28, 2010, Price, using an advanced medical directive that was honored by the hospital, removed life support and Coleman died. Coleman was 42 years old.
Surprisingly, even though Coleman’s advanced medical directive provided that it was his desire that his life be prolonged as long as possible within the limits of generally accepted health care standards, Price chose not to honor these desires and used the power entrusted to her to remove support.
Here is where Coleman’s estate planning efforts failed him. He signed his medical directive prior to divorcing Price. Under Utah law applicable at the time, Price did not have authority to make medical decisions unless specified in the decree of divorce or unless the advanced medical directive naming Price was later affirmed by Coleman. Neither was the case, and yet the hospital honored Price’s directions anyway.
Besides their appearance on Divorce Court and pictures and headlines in tabloids, how was the hospital to know that Price and Coleman were divorced? As a practical matter, the medical staff reviewing documents does not have a lawyer on call to review the validity of a named agent’s authority.
The lesson here is simple; if you’re divorced and you do or do not want your ex-spouse prematurely pulling the plug, update your health care power of attorney and living will. Unfortunately, we don’t really know Coleman’s desires. This isn’t the only aspect of Coleman’s estate planning documents where Coleman failed to make a change.
Prior to marrying Price, Coleman signed a Will naming his longtime friend Anna Gray as his executor and beneficiary of his estate. Then, following his marriage to Price, Coleman wrote in his own hand a Codicil to his Will (amendment) naming Price as his executor and sole beneficiary of his estate.
The issue here is not that the Codicil to Coleman’s Will was written in his own hand, but rather that it was nullified by his divorce from Price. The Codicil was a valid Holographic Codicil in as much as it was signed by Coleman, dated, written in his own hand, and included his intention as to the changes of his Will.
Under Utah law, Price’s interest in Coleman’s estate was nullified because the couple’s divorce decree did not provide that her beneficial interest in his estate would remain valid, and also because Coleman did not update his Will to reaffirm an intention that Price remain as the sole beneficiary of his estate. Likewise, Nevada law would have also eliminated Price’s interest in Coleman’s estate.
Price tried to get around the law by arguing that she was Coleman’s spouse by way of Common Law Marriage, and, therefore, the Codicil remained in force. The Court was not convinced and decided against Price and in favor of Gray. Common Law Marriage exists where a couple hold themselves out as “married” even though they have never formerly been married. Nevada no longer recognizes Common Law Marriage. An estate plan in Nevada won’t be saved after a divorce by the appearance of a marriage.
The lesson to be learned from Gary Coleman’s estate is simple. Don’t wait. If things change, make sure you take the time to update your estate plan. If you have to do so by using preprinted forms and a Holographic Will to get it done before you have the time or money to see an attorney, do it.
Thankfully most heirs won’t have to deal with a mess like the one left by Coleman. The process of quickly updating the documents in Coleman’s estate would have taken a matter of minutes. Likewise, it does not take long for an estate planning attorney to review documents and update a simple Will and powers of attorney. Encourage those you know and love to make sure that their affairs are in order.
Michael G. Millward, Esq., is an estate planning and business attorney. Michael previously practiced with Cassandra Jones, Esq., at Heritage Law Group, and started his own firm, Millward Law, Ltd., in April of 2017. He is a resident of Douglas County, and practices in state and federal courts in Northern Nevada. He can be reached at 775-600-2776.