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TheStreet Open House

Dead Celebs Offer Estate Planning Guidance

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, Princess Di and Michael Crichton are among the well-known figures used to explain the "dos" and "don'ts" of estate planning by legacy attorney Danielle Mayoras.

Mayoras, along with her husband Andrew -- a probate litigator -- is author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights, a book that looks at the estate plan blunders of those in the public eye.

Godfather actor Marlon Brando may have made his maid an offer she couldn't refuse -- a share of his wealth after he died -- but spoken promises are no way to craft a will.

The book is intended to help families, regardless of income level, avoid the financial pitfalls that drained bank accounts and created huge family rifts for the dozens of celebrities whose squabbles are detailed within its pages.

"No matter what group I was speaking to, whether it was financial advisers or an organization of families, someone from every audience would raise their hand and ask, 'How do I get my clients to talk about these issues?' or 'How do I get my loved ones to talk about these issues?' It was always a question you knew you were going to get, but there was never an easy answer," Mayoras says.

The couple decided that the gossipy appeal of celebrity estate battles would be an entertaining way to address what many see as a boring, dreaded subject.

A recent example of celebrity estate planning gone wrong is the high-profile battle over the remaining assets of the actor Dennis Hopper.

Before Hopper died, he filed for divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy-Hopper. Her claim is that the attempted divorce was the result of pressure from his children and a move to cut her out of the estate plan. According to the couple's prenuptial agreement, if they were divorced or no longer living together, she would not inherit 25% of his estate and other insurance-related assets.

Duffy-Hopper has filed a $45 million claim against Hopper's estate, claiming, among other things, she is owed $10 million for defamation of character arising from public comments Hopper made during their divorce. Hopper's trust has countersued, claiming she stole artwork.

Michael Crichton, author of such blockbusters as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, shows that documents need to be updated ahead of life events -- a divorce, a pregnancy -- not after they occur.

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