Joan Rivers' estate planning looks smarter all the time

Her estate may contain very few assets: that's one sign of good planning.

By Andy and Danielle Mayoras

Dec 23, 2014 @ 1:40 am EST

Joan Rivers was widely respected for her sense of humor, work ethic, and willingness to say almost anything for a laugh. However, when it came to planning her estate, Rivers treated the matter very seriously.

Joan Rivers' last will and testament was signed on November 16, 2011. A thorough and well-drafted legal document, the will named a living trust as her beneficiary.

Specifically, Joan Rivers (whose full legal name was Joan R. Rosenberg) signed the Rosenberg Family Trust on the same day as the will. The will directed that all of her estate assets were to be distributed to that trust.

Interestingly, the final version of Joan's trust was far from her first. In fact, the will stated that her trust was actually the eleventh amendment of the original trust, and the third complete restatement. This means that the original Rosenberg Family Trust was changed, many times over, and rewritten completely three times (not counting the original version). When you consider that Joan only had one daughter, Melissa Rivers, and one grandchild, this shows an extraordinary commitment to proper estate planning!

Because Joan Rivers used a trust, the specifics of her estate plan are kept confidential and out of the public eye. That, of course, didn't stop the New York media from reporting on how much money she supposedly had, and who was to receive it. The New York Post reported that her estate was worth $150 million, and that she spread the assets between her daughter, Melissa, grandson, Cooper, and several others who were close to her as well as several charities. Media outlets around the world have run with the story and reported that Joan Rivers' will names these as her beneficiaries, commenting on her generosity.

See: Top 10 Celebrity Estate Planning Stories of the Year

In reality, her will names only one beneficiary -- her trust. As a "pour-over" will, it pours assets into her trust, and then the trust document controls who receives what, when, and how much. The will does not name any specific beneficiaries of the trust (other than mentioning that Melissa is one), but it does list her family members and her executors, with two different back-up nominations. Along with Melissa, who is given the most authority as one of the co-executors, Joan Rivers named her interior designer and her manager to run the estate.


As required by New York probate law, the will was filed with several court forms, which in turn listed who are Joan's distributees (i.e., those who are entitled to receive distributions). Those names were listed so those individuals and charities could receive notice of the filing and be part of the probate process. These forms do not indicate who receives what -- it could be as little as a few hundred dollars, or much more.

The filings also do not state how much her assets are worth. Rather, one website that estimates celebrity estate values approximated her net worth based on real estate holdings, reported earnings from her television roles and QVC offerings, etc., but this is simply a rough approximation. The true value of Joan's assets remain private.

In fact, the will and the probate filing may control very few -- or conceivably even none -- of Joan's assets. Any assets that she transferred into her trust during her life would not have to pass through probate court or be part of the probate process. As such, when the executors are ultimately required to file a form listing the assets of Joan's estate, those assets likely will be less (and probably much less) than the true value of all of her property and money, including what was already funded into the trust.

With estate planning documents updated as thoroughly as Joan's were, it would be a big surprise if she didn't fund her assets into her trust during life. That's part of the estate planning process, when done the right way.

If Joan Rivers' estate holds so few assets, then why was it filed at all? The court filings note that Melissa and the other executors intend to file a wrongful death lawsuit based on the apparent malpractice that led to Joan's death. These types of lawsuits require an estate be opened and that one or more executors be appointed. If not for that need, it is quite possible that Joan's estate could have avoided the probate process entirely.

One thing her will does accomplish, however, is a good lesson. When people work with experienced estate planning attorneys and make proper use of wills and trusts -- including updating them when wishes change or when life events happen -- it makes the entire process much simpler, more cost effective, and private than when the proper planning isn't done. It also greatly reduces the chances of a family fight.

Whatever your personal views of Joan Rivers' sense of humor are, you should give her credit for having the good business sense to plan her estate the right way.

Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" and attorneys with "Barron Rosenberg Mayoras & Mayoras, PC".  You can reach them at [email protected].

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