Sad Story of an Industry Mogul Gets Even Sadder

The world has been left in shock at the recent loss of tech mogul Tony Hsieh. Hsieh, who founded online shoe giant Zappos, and who spent the last decade implementing a cutting-edge plan to transform and revitalize downtown Las Vegas, died Thanksgiving weekend as a result of a house fire. A heartbreaking end to a seemingly fairytale life. An inspiration to many, Tony was a Harvard graduate, a relentless innovator and an industry titan with a net worth of nearly $1 billion. He was a man with a remarkable golden touch and someone who simply appeared to do everything right. Except for one thing. He died without a will.

As a financial planner and wealth manager, I find this last little detail to be just another gut punch in an already tragic story.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOUR LOVED ONE DIED WITHOUT A WILL?

Dying without leaving a legal will in place is called Intestacy – and the repercussions are vast and profound. To die “in intestacy” means the standard probate process of dividing your assets among your beneficiaries becomes substantially more complicated.

While each state has its own set of laws related to probating an intestate estate, the process mostly works the same. The probate court will first appoint an administrator to oversee the estate of the deceased. A court appointed administrator serves a similar function to that of an executor of a will and is responsible for obtaining all legal claims against the estate and paying off all outstanding debts.

Another duty of an intestate administrator is to locate the legal heirs like surviving spouses, children, parents and perhaps others. The probate court will assess what assets need to be distributed and to whom in an inheritance process called intestate succession.

While there are literally volumes written about the challenges and hurdles related to the probate process of intestacy, suffice to say an ounce of prevention – and a little inheritance planning – goes a long way in ensuring ones’ legacy falls into the right hands.

HOW MANY PEOPLE DIE WITHOUT A WILL?

Because of the vastness of his fortune, Tony Hsieh’s lack of a will certainly stands out. But his death “in intestacy” is not an anomaly. In its 2020 Estate Planning and Wills Study, Caring.com reported “The number of adult Americans that have a will or another type of estate planning document decreased by nearly 25% since 2017” and that less than one-third of people today say they have a will or other estate planning document in place.

Many noteworthy legends surprisingly have died without a will – including Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, Michael Jackson and even Abraham Lincoln, to name a few – accounting for billions upon billions of dollars in assets.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO AVOID DYING INTESTATE

To avoid the hurdles and expense your loved ones will experience should you die without a will, it is important to create an Estate Plan now that includes a Last Will and Testament. You may want to engage your Financial Advisor or Wealth Manager to assist you in your Estate Planning meetings, as they are experts in your finances and can help provide you and your Estate Planning Attorney with key information. Also, if you do not currently have an Estate Planning Attorney, your Financial Advisor may be able to recommend one.

Admittedly, writing a will can be an uncomfortable process to some and invoke an undeniable sense of mortality. But without this important document, your loved ones’ grief is compounded by substantial cost and stress – and you entirely lose say into whose hands your estate posthumously lands.

BACK TO THE LEGEND THAT WAS TONY HSIEH

In the days following Tony’s death, we have learned that this legendary innovator may have been plagued by some pretty insidious demons, thus making the unfathomability of his dying without a will slightly more conceivable.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his passing, there is one thing I know for certain. Tony lived his life elevating those around him and making the world a substantially better place. And that, above all, will be his lasting legacy.

By Joseph Altic, CFP®, MBA, is the President and Managing Partner at PWM.