We are saddened by the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, who at his death was the longest serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless of whether you agreed with him or not, you knew he would always be good for a memorable quip or piercing challenge to his opponent’s legal argument. You might be surprised to know that scientific research has proven Justice Scalia was the funniest of all justices.1
What do we know about the plan he left behind to handle his estate and care for his family and loved ones? You would think that a Supreme Court justice would have the finest estate plan, but that isn’t always the case, as we’ll see later.
So soon after Justice Scalia’s death, very little is known about his estate plan. Did he have a will? A trust? Whom would be in charge of his affairs?
We may know much more in the coming months. If he left a will, his estate will almost certainly go through a probate process in the jurisdiction where he was a resident. If he owned real property in other jurisdictions, his estate may have to be probated there, as well. Since probate is a public process, details of his estate may be available for all to see, just like they are for Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, Jimi Hendrix and so many others.
It is also possible Justice Scalia created a living trust for his family. Since a living trust is a private document, we may learn very little about Justice Scalia’s estate plan. When Frank Sinatra died in 1998, his lawyer commented that, “Mr. Sinatra, like most of us, had most of his assets in a living trust and that is never public information.”
Whatever Justice Scalia’s plan, we hope it wasn’t like his fellow jurist, Warren Burger. Chief Justice Burger’s will, all of 165 words long—including typos—was prepared and typed by the Chief Justice himself. One thing we know for sure, had Chief Justice Burger done some simple planning, he likely would have saved his family almost a half million dollars in taxes, not to mention the publicity and cost of the probate proceeding. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln was right when he said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Let’s hope Justice Scalia was no fool.
1As remarkable as this may sound, Professor Jay Wexler of Boston University studied how many times the official court reporter transcript of Supreme Court sessions noted “(laughter)” during the 2004-2005 session. Justice Scalia’s comments evoked laughter 77 times, far more than any other justice.