Heath Ledger was one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors who rose to fame during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. However, his career and life were cut tragically short when he was found unresponsive due to an accidental overdose of prescription medication on January 22, 2008, at the young age of 28.
At the time of his death, Ledger left behind a substantial fortune and a young daughter, Matilda Rose, whom he shared with fellow actress, Michelle Williams. In the weeks following his death, it was discovered that Ledger had a Will. However, the Will was drafted three years prior to the birth of his daughter, and left everything to Ledger’s parents and sister.
Enter Larry Williams, Michelle Williams's father, who was encouraged by Ledger’s extended family to hire an attorney in order to protect the interest of his granddaughter, Matilda Rose. While there was plenty of interfamilial fighting regarding Ledger’s estate, there was hope for Matilda, as all parties seemingly were interested in Matilda inheriting her father’s fortune. This wish was made easier by the “Pretermitted Heir” law.
What is a Pretermitted Heir?
A pretermitted heir is a child or descendant of the testator—i.e., the maker of a will—who has unintentionally been omitted from the will. Most states have enacted "pretermitted heir statutes" that protect these heirs. Sometimes this omission is intentional in order to disinherit a potential heir, but often the omission is unintentional. This was true with respect to Heath Ledger’s estate, as he created the estate plan prior to the birth of his daughter and did not update it prior to his death.
Key Steps When Administering an Estate With a Pretermitted Heir?
- Review the Will and Trust: Is there any language in these documents that would suggest disinheritance? (i.e., Language where the testator specifically mentions his or her intention to disinherit descendants.)
- Create a timeline: Create a document that outlines the date the estate plan was created, and when each child was born.
- Does the Will or Trust omit children who were born or adopted after the date the estate plan was signed? This child would be considered a ‘pretermitted child’.
- If a child was born prior to the creation of the Will or Trust, can you determine if this child(ren) was intentionally omitted? If yes, this is known as an ‘omitted child’
- If the child(ren) was pretermitted, you will need to determine whether they are entitled to the estate (or portion of) even though no provisions were made for that child in the estate plan.