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Steve McNair died without a will

It's a tragic story all around.  Steve McNair had it all -- fame and fortune from a successful career as an NFL quarterback and a beautiful wife with two kids, as well as two kids from a prior relationship.  He was widely respected for being a fierce competitor who worked hard to get the most of his skills.  In 2003, he became the first African-American quarterback ever to win an NFL most valuable player award.Steve_McNair

But, McNair's life had a secret, dark side too.  On the Fourth of July of this year, he was shot and killed from four gunshot wounds, in a condominium in Nashville, Tennessee. A young woman, reported to be his girlfriend, was found dead nearby.  The Nashville police consider it to be a murder-suicide.  They believe she killed McNair and then took her own life.   McNair was only 36 years old.

Obviously, McNair's wife and four young children are now forced to come to terms with this terrible tragedy.  To make the situation worse, they won't be allowed to grieve in private and try to move on with their lives.  Instead, it will take them much longer to put this awful situation in the past because McNair wasn't prepared for his untimely death.

The Associated Press reported today that McNair died without a will.  His wife was forced to hire a probate lawyer and file to open the estate this week on an emergency basis, because his estate needs to be administered.  The court filing in a Nashville, Tennessee probate court indicated the value of his estate was not yet known.  The probate judge granted McNair's widow the legal authority to administer the estate. 

Interestingly, the probate petition listed on McNair's wife and her two children as heirs.  The two children from a prior relationship were not listed.  Even illegitimate children are entitled to inherit a portion of an estate from a father who died without a will -- called intestate.  But they may first have to prove that they really are his children.

This noticeable omission from the filing suggests that there will be a fight coming.  There is no reason to omit the other two boys as heirs, unless the widow is considering contesting their right to inherit. 

Even if there is no court battle, McNair's widow still has to file an inventory in 60 days, which will publicly disclose what his assets were.  And she will have to administer the Estate through the very public probate court proceeding.  She won't be permitted to play favorites for her two boys, to the exclusion of McNair's other children.

And McNair's wishes for how his estate would have been divided won't matter.  When someone dies without a will, the state where he or she lived at death decides who gets the inheritance.  In Tennessee, this would generally mean that his widow will receive one-third of his property, and his four children (legitimate and illegitimate alike) will equally split the other two-thirds.  Additional court proceedings will likely be required to appoint someone to manage the money that the children receive, since they are not yet adults.

But, some or all of McNair's assets may have been listed jointly with his wife or others, and he may have insurance or other assets with a beneficiary designation that would control who gets those assets.  But any assets that were in his name alone when he died now must pass through probate court and will be divided on the one-third to spouse / two-thirds to children basis.  [This percentage does vary state to state].

If McNair had been smart, he would have created a will so he could decide who received what property.  Or, better yet, he could have hired a reputable estate planning attorney and purchased a revocable living trust.

If McNair had used such a trust -- and properly funded it during his life -- he would have kept his affairs private, allowed his children to receive their inheritance when he felt they were old enough to receive it, and -- most importantly -- saved his family from a great deal of expense, emotional drain and turmoil.  

Depending on how much his estate and other assets are worth, McNair may have cost his family millions of dollars in estate taxes that could have been greatly reduced with a proper trust.

It's a good lesson to the rest of us that it is far better to spend money on estate planning now and avoid having to pay probate lawyers later. 

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 @

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