When Prince died two weeks ago, the public discourse fell into two camps. The first mourned the loss of his musical artistry, his quirky and bizarre behavior, and his incredible generosity. The other camp salivated over the future of his estate. What would happen to all his stuff? All his money? All that unpublished music (Prince allegedly had 26 albums of unpublished material stored in a vault beneath his Paisley Park mansion)? At 57 years old, Prince left no will codifying how to disperse his estate, which ranges in estimates from $150 to $800 million.
“Why didn’t Prince leave a will?” everyone and their mothers seems to be asking. It’s a reasonable question, but because the subject is Prince, it appears people are looking for an answer that's sui generis. But the truth is, we'll never know. People keep asking me why, as if being an attorney grants me deep and special insights into the matter, but I don't have any and I don't think they're necessary. The answer doesn't seem all that extraordinary to me.
Prince probably didn’t have a will for the same reason many of us don’t: he didn’t want to think about dying. That’s the whole point of having a will. You have to think about dying - a lot - and how your stuff will be disbursed to your friends and family.
So on top of a dreadful topic that no one on Earth enjoys talking about (except funeral home directors and your nephew who hates you because you told his parents you caught him smoking pot that one time), you also have to deal with a lot of structure and formality. A will is a legally binding document, typically drafted by a lawyer, that governs with specificity how an estate is to be dealt with. Drawing a will is not a passive activity. You don’t just hand a bunch of papers to your lawyer and say “talk to you in a couple of weeks.” It’s a long and involved process which requires your active engagement throughout.
That engagement can include discussing end of life care and disposal of your final remains. It will definitely cover all your property and holdings and who gets them. The more you have, and the more people you want to give it to, the longer the process. You also have to prioritize your beneficiaries, which is something no one ever really wants to think about. Maybe your niece is more deserving than your own children, but what kind of message does that send, especially since you can’t clarify your choices afterwards?
For the sake of comparison, my parents had a will drawn up five years ago. Even though their estate is modest (we’re middle class people) and there were only two beneficiaries (myself and my brother), the entire process took about four weeks from soup to nuts. My parents were heavily involved in it for the entire time. With millions of dollars of property at stake, imagine how time-consuming and expensive drawing a will for Prince would be.
So wills are complicated and time intensive, you have to think about your own death, and you have to confront some possibly ugly realities about how much you hate your friends and family and how much they’ll hate you when they discover how little they’re actually getting. That’s a sufficient reason to avoid it without getting into outlandish territory. Just because Prince was a legend doesn’t also mean he wasn’t a human person.
The result, of course, is that since he didn’t have a will, the entire estate will go into probate, where a judge will determine who becomes the beneficiary. In most states, the closest living relatives become the beneficiaries of an estate without a will, usually split equally if there’s more than one beneficiary. While Prince had a few half-siblings, his closest living relative is his sister, Tyka Nelson, who has already started probate proceedings.
So his family will probably end up with everything he left behind. But probate is no cakewalk, and it can create some real complications. First, probate judges are probably looking at a hundred other cases at any given moment, which means it’s going to take a long time to figure out… especially considering the size of Prince’s estate. Second, even though Prince’s family may be the main heirs, there could be other suitors vying for ownership, which will inevitably draw the process out even longer. You know all those albums Prince never published? What if Warner Music or Capitol Records or Sony decided that some of those albums belonged to them for contractual reasons (Prince habitually started and then shelved entire albums worth of material. It’s not unrealistic for a record label to lay claim to an unfinished album if it was one that Prince could have owed them before shelving it)? Even if they have no real claim to that music, just by commencing a legal action, probate could be slowed down by months and years.
And after the estate is settled, there's no guarantee the beneficiaries will want to honor Prince's desires. Just recently, his estate licensed one of his songs for use in Grey’s Anatomy. Maybe Prince would have allowed that if he were still alive, but let’s be honest. He probably wouldn't have. And an estate settled by probate would probably pay a much larger share in taxes to the state, leaving less for the many charities Prince supported.
A will is designed to clarify how one’s property will be distributed after death. But considering all the hassles surrounding it, I think the question isn’t “why didn’t he have one?” so much as it is “what’s the incentive for him to make the effort?”