Media mogul Sumner Redstone – owner of CBS and Viacom, among other holdings – allegedly created quite an estate planning mess, according to a recent report in the New York Times. A June 2nd article reports that “with a fortune estimated at over $5 billion, Sumner M. Redstone could afford the best estate planning that money could buy. What he ended up with is a mess — no matter the outcome of the welter of lawsuits swirling around him.”
Here are five lessons from the business titan’s problems:
1. Avoid making decisions that could complicate both your public image and your business situation. The New York Times reported that “A lawsuit brought by Manuela Herzer, one of Mr. Redstone’s late-in-life romantic partners, stripped him of whatever dignity he might have hoped to retain by publicly revealing humiliating details about his physical and sexual appetites and his diminishing mental capacity.”
2. Define “incapacity.” Mr. Redstone did (smartly) establish an irrevocable trust. However, his case is also a cautionary tale: if you're going to tie asset transfers or succession plans to your own mental state, you must define “incapacity.” If you don't, the state will. A seemingly trivial semantic argument like that could tie your estate up in court for years, pitting family members against one another in an embarrassing public battle.
3. Create a clear succession plan. Leave no doubt. Clarify how your businesses will be managed and by whom. Step down from leadership while you are mentally capable of making that decision, and give a safe and clear hand off to your successor. If you can, it’s much better to be deliberate and thoughtful about handoffs of authority, rather than waiting until things become unmanageable.
4. Make crystal clear what role your children will play once you are gone. Disenfranchised or estranged family members can wreak havoc on your fortune if you don't clarify what roles they will play in your business, your trusts, and your legacy after you are gone. If you don't spell out those roles, a court will. If you really want to, you can disinherit someone. But, you need to make sure you do it the right way for it to be legally effective.
5. Hire a qualified lawyer to troubleshoot your plan and help you game out contingencies. A lawyer with significant estate planning experience can help you deal both with the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” that can throw your estate planning strategy off course. The more complex your estate is, the more involved your attorney should be.