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Celebrity case offers education on value of estate planning

Clarity of thought and language when drafting a will can mean the difference between a person's estate being settled quickly on behalf of all the intended beneficiaries, and a long, drawn out battle between parties, some of whom may have no claim on the assets. Without clear language, matters may wind up in court and be subject to decisions that may not serve anyone as desired.

One of the elements that should be part and parcel to the crafting of a solid will is the disposition of life insurance policies. When good planning is done, insurance works in concert with a will. Beneficiaries are clearly defined and identified. Trusts can be established that allow the will maker to make clear who receives what and why it's being distributed as it is. Lawsuits can be avoided.

Such isn't the case for singer Whitney Houston. She's in the midst of a battle royal with her step-mother right now over a $1 million life insurance policy that had been taken out on her father. He died in 2003.

The policy reportedly named Houston the sole beneficiary. But step-mother went to court saying that the money was intended to pay off a mortgage on her husband's house. By putting the money toward that mortgage, the house would be handed down to the step-mother free and clear.

Houston is fighting back. She says the policy payout was meant to repay her for other money she lent her father. As the mortgage holder on the house, Houston asked the court to throw the step-mother out of the home and a federal judge in New Jersey granted her wish.

But that's not the end. The step-mother appealed and reportedly produced some written evidence to support of her claim. Oral arguments took place recently and a decision is pending from the appeals court.

The takeaway from this is this. Know who is named as beneficiaries in life insurance policies. And make sure that relevant relatives know who is named. At the very least, recommend to loved ones that if they haven't sorted these issues out, that they do so soon, with appropriate legal and financial assistance.

Source: Forbes.com, "Pass The Turkey With A Side Of MORE Celebrity Estate Planning Stories," Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Nov. 21, 2011

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