(Forbes) John Singleton was widely hailed as an innovative director after bursting onto the Hollywood scene in 1991 with his revolutionary movie, Boyz n the Hood. But he did not match his brilliance in filmmaking with an ability to take care of his loved ones with good estate planning. Singleton did his family no favors by committing the most common mistake when it came to planning his estate - procrastination.
After John Singleton died tragically in April of 2019 at age 51 from a stroke, it was revealed that he only an outdated will from 1993. While he was not married when he died, he left behind at least five children, along with two other minor daughters who may or may not be his. The family already disagreed - publicly - about important issues such as whether he would recover from the stroke, who should serve as his conservator, and even what was the actual cause of his death after he was brought to the hospital under mysterious circumstances.
Add in an outdated will to the mix, and his family is looking at years of complications, potential legal challenges to his estate, and expensive legal fees.
Because Singleton died with only a will in place – instead of a trust – his estate has to go through the probate court process. Already, the probate process has led to more fighting, likely setting the stage for additional disputes.
His mother, Sheila Ward, filed to open the probate proceeding and asked the court to admit his 1993 will. At the time he signed it, Singleton was a relatively new director and filmmaker and had only one child, daughter Justice Singleton.
In her probate filing, Ward reported that Singleton had assets worth around $3.8 million. She also listed his heirs - five acknowledged children, plus two minor daughters, each of whom she designated as an “Alleged Daughter.” In other words, it is not clear if they are really his biological daughters or not.
Many websites have reported that Singleton’s net worth was around $35M when he died, and speculated that the probate filing only listed a small fraction of this because he may have had a trust that contained the rest of his assets. While possible, this theory is unlikely considering that it would be very unusual for someone to set up a trust and not at the same time create or update his will to a “pourover” will.
Pourover wills work hand-in-hand with trusts, so that any assets not transferred into a trust during someone’s lifetime are then passed into the trust through the probate court process after someone dies. In other words, a will like this “pours” the assets from the probate estate into the trust. Singleton’s 1993 will was already admitted into probate court, which means it was his last unrevoked will created during his life. It was not a pourover will.
It is hard to conceive of a reputable estate planning attorney preparing a trust for a client and not including a pourover will with it. So chances are very low that there is a John Singleton trust with additional money for his children. It is certainly possible that he had life insurance, bank accounts, or investments accounts with beneficiary designations, POD/TOD, or joint account owners - all of which would pass directly to the named recipient and not pass through probate court. Those types of assets would not be reported on a probate court form. But it is unlikely that Singleton really was worth tens of millions of dollars as of his death.
In 2015, it was reported that Singleton successfully sought a reduction in child support for his daughter, Hadar, from $4,000 per month down to $2,100, based on Singleton’s reduced income. At the time, he reported monthly income of $14,500 and expenses of $24,000 per month. This reduction in child support would have been unlikely if he really was worth tens of millions of dollars.
His mother - who is now the personal representative of his estate – recently filed a new document asking for the court to approve a settlement worth $515,472 based on Singleton’s claim for a greater share of royalties from Sony Pictures arising from his 2001 movie, Baby Boy. The document reports that Singleton reached a settlement in this amount before he died, but the settlement was never signed or finalized due to his untimely stroke. This sum would be added to his estate.
So who will inherit the millions of dollars that John Singleton’s estate contains? Under the wording of his 1993 will, only his daughter, Justice will inherit.
Lucky for his other children, however, his will does not control their inheritance because they were born after Singleton signed his will. California’s probate law permits any after-born children to inherit equally with children living when the will was signed, subject to certain exceptions, such as if a child was taken care of in other ways (like a life insurance policy for example).
But this still leaves open the issue of how many of the children are really John Singleton’s? Five of the seven are confirmed to be his, but paternity of the two minor daughters was never established. Whether or not they can inherit may be the subject of future probate proceedings and could lead to a big fight.
So far, one of Singleton’s daughter, Cleopatria, has already opposed the executor. She initially objected to her grandmother’s request to be appointed to administer the estate on an emergency basis (a challenge which Cleopatria ultimately dropped). Most recently, Cleopatria asked for an allowance from the estate for her living expenses, in the amount of $2278 per month, because she was financially dependent on her father when he died. This request has not yet been addressed by the probate judge and it raises the question of what support should his other children receive?
And this is likely only the first battle. Did his other children already receive money from Singleton’s death in other ways? Should the two minor daughters be recognized as his children and also share in the estate? Will any of his children oppose the way that his mother, who is now in charge of his estate, manages John Singleton’s royalties, intellectual property, or his assets?
With good estate planning - starting with an up-to-date will, and even better, a revocable living trust - these questions would have been answered. John Singleton should have updated his estate planning documents after his children were born and specified who is to receive what and whether any of his children should have a say in how his legacy is managed.
Very few people expect to pass away at such a young age. Yet no one is promised tomorrow. Too many people procrastinate creating a proper will or trust, assuming that they can take care of it “someday.”
Waiting for “someday” to do the proper estate planning often leaves the surviving family members left to pay the price.