In my prior article about the Steve McNair Estate, I explained how the former NFL star apparently died without a will. I also warned of a possible probate court dispute because his widow did not list his two children from a prior relationship as heirs in the probate court filing.
This raised a huge red flag because, under Tennessee's intestate law, they are entitled to approximately one-third of his assets that pass through probate court. There was no good reason to omit them from the probate documents unless McNair's widow was considering challenging their right to inherit as legitimate children of the murdered quarterback.
McNair's agent recently addressed these concerns in an interview with the Associated Press carried on ESPN.com. James "Bus" Cook said that Mechelle McNair (the widow) is not trying to exclude the two older children, but didn't list them because she didn't have proof they were actually his kids.
Cook reported that the proof had later been provided, meaning that she would recognize them as legitimate heirs and they would inherit. He cited "well-documented legal history in Mississippi" as the source of the proof. In legal proceedings there, McNair was apparently ordered to provide child support. Cook notes McNair paid support over and above what was ordered.
Cook also said that while McNair had no valid will, he had several different versions prepared that he never did sign. Cook also said McNair provided for all of his family -- children, mother and wife -- well and that no one need worry about them.
I, for one, am still skeptical. If Mechelle McNair knew about the well-documented court case in Mississippi, she wouldn't have had to omit the other children of McNair. If it was so well-documented, why not list them?
Also, Cook seems to be implying that McNair didn't sign a will because he already took care of his family in other ways. For example, he may have added some of their names to joint bank accounts, or named them as beneficiaries in insurance policies or annuities. If so, the two other children may not inherit what they otherwise would have under Tennessee intestate law.
Certainly, this still sets the stage for a possible court fight because using joint bank accounts and beneficiary designations as will-substitutes is never a good idea. Why? Just ask Whitney Houston and her deceased father's wife, who are battling in court on this very issue.
When a person adds someone as a joint-owner of an account or property (such as a house), or names a person as a beneficiary, that person is presumed to be the owner of the property and generally gets to keep it. However, there are many exceptions to this -- such as when the person was named purely as a convenience, not with the intent he or she keep the property.
When this happens, court battles over the assets are common. And they can be expensive because it is not always easy to prove what a person who died really intended.
In McNair's case, he certainly left behind valuable property. He earned more than $90 million in his playing career, plus any marketing or endorsement deals. There is no reason an estate this vast should be left to be fought over -- regardless of how McNair titled his accounts and named beneficiaries. With that much money at stake, and so many people counting on it, McNair should have been prudent and created a revocable living trust.
Unsigned wills and taking care of people in other ways is not enough. Hopefully, people will learn a lesson from this and plan the right way with a good estate planning attorney.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+