The Rich Cry Too or Another Estate (Un) Planning Lesson

by Maureen Duffy
Just because you have a complicated family situation, doesn’t mean that you need a complicated estate plan. But if you have a complicated family situation and you die without an estate plan, you will be leaving your family in a bad way.
Consider the case of Sonny Bono. Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident on January 5, 1998. In spite of his complicated family situation, Sonny did not have a Will when he died. Sonny had been married four times. Three of these marriages produced children, all of whom survived Sonny. His two older daughters, Christy and Chastity, were adults when he died, but his son Chesare and daughter Chianna, from his final marriage to Mary Bono were still minors.In addition, while Sonny was married to Cher, he had had an affair with another actress, Mimi Machu, who gave birth to a son named Sean. Sonny was listed on the birth certificate as Sean’s father, but never had a relationship with him. After Sonny’s death, Sean filed a petition to be recognized as Sonny’s heir-at-law. The court ordered DNA testing, which must have proved that Sean was not Sonny’s child because when the estate was distributed it was divided among Sonny’s widow and his four children.Sonny’s death was unexpected and his family was devastated, but the stress on his widow was made a great deal worse by the fact that he did not leave a will. In the first place, Sonny never said how he wanted to provide for his children. Since his children with Mary were minors, he may not have wanted them to receive an inheritance while Mary was still alive. Under the laws of California, they were entitled to receive a portion of Sonny’s estate, even though Mary survived him. The application of Ohio law renders the same result. If Ohio law had applied to Sonny’s estate, his widow would only have been entitled to inherit $60,000 plus one-third of the probate estate because Sonny’s daughters Christy and Chastity were not her children. In Ohio, all four of Sonny’s children would have been entitled to divide the remaining two-thirds of Sonny’s estate between themselves.If Sonny had made a will before he died, his widow would not have had to deal with the issue of his alleged illegitimate son. Sonny could either have included the man in his will or specifically disinherited him. Under Ohio law, Sean would have had difficulty in establishing that he was an heir of Sonny’s estate. Ohio law provides a number of ways for an illegitimate child to inherit from his father. An illegitimate child can inherit as an intestate heir of a parent, if the parent-child relationship had been established according to the Parentage Act. If parentage has not been established in this manner, an illegitimate child can inherit from a father, if the father:

  1. later marries the child’s mother;
  2. provides for the child in his will;
  3. adopts the child;
  4. designates the child as his heir under Ohio Law. None of these methods would have helped Sean.

Although the child of a deceased father can establish paternity under the parentage act, the child must do so before his twenty-third birthday. Sean was 35 at the time Sonny Bono died and so this remedy would have been unavailable to him. None of this applies if the deceased parent is a child’s mother.According to the law “[c]hildren born out of wedlock shall be capable of inheriting or transmitting inheritance from and to their mother, and from and to those from whom she may inherit, or to whom she may transmit inheritance, as if born in lawful wedlock.”

Maybe your life is not as complicated as Sonny Bono’s. However, if you have been married more than once, or if you have had children with more than one person, you owe it to your family to consult with an estate planning attorney and have him or her prepare an appropriate plan.