Jenni Rivera was a singer-songwriter, actress and Telemundo TV star who died tragically on Dec. 9 in a plane crash in Mexico. While well-known to fans of Latino music and Mexican TV, Rivera appeared poised to breakthrough to mainstream America due to a new TV show she was set to star in for ABC.
The 43-year old Rivera lived a turbulent life. She had her first child at age 15 and then married the father. They had two more children together, but it was a marriage of abuse and molestation. After the divorce, Riveras first husband was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in jail for child molestation.
Rivera married twice more and had two more children from her second marriage. Her third marriage, to professional baseball player Esteban Loaiza, also was ending. The couple filed for divorce on October 1, 2012, citing irreconcilable differences. There was a report that Rivera and her eldest daughter had been fighting because the daughter had an affair with Loaiza, but its a report that the daughter strenuously refuted.
Riveras Estate will likely be as rocky as her life was. NBCLatino reported that Rivera left behind a letter, which set forth detailed instructions so that her sister, Rosie, would take over management of her various business and music interests, her assets, and even care of her two minor children (their father, Riveras second husband, died in 2009). Reportedly, her interests are held in a company, Jenni Enterprises, which is valued at $25 million.
This report alone raises many questions. First, can a letter be treated as a valid will? Normally, a will is prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney and leaves no question of whether or not it is intended to be a will. But when someone creates their own will, the legal formalities may not be met. In many states, including California where Rivera resided, if there is clear and convincing evidence that the person intended the document to be a will when it was signed, then it will be accepted as a will even without the legal formalities. So the reported letter may or may not qualify as a valid will, depending on how it was worded.
Second, there is the question of Riveras husband. While they filed for divorce in October, the divorce had not yet been finalized when the plane crash occurred. Normally, in a community property state like California, the spouse is entitled to one-half of the estate. Loaiza was still considered Riveras legal spouse, and a letter alone would not be enough to deprive him of his interest. However, if Rivera and Loaiza had a valid prenuptial agreement or if he otherwise waived his interest in the estate, then he would not receive half. Instead, his interest in the estate would be governed by whatever agreement was in place.
Third, did Rivera have a living trust? Most people of her wealth would have a living trust. This would be expected of Rivera, considering she worked with advisers to create a company to manage her affairs. She likely had some formal estate planning documents in place. This could impact the validity of the letter, as well as what rights Loaiza would have in the estate.
All of these are issues that may likely lead to conflict and fighting in court. In fact, Riveras father already told a Mexican television network that the funeral was delayed due to legal reasons. Rivera was not laid to rest until December 31, more than three weeks after the crash. Normally, funeral arrangements could be addressed in a will or other legal document, but in the absence of that, her husband would have the legal right to bury her, even though they had separated.
There is also the matter of the expected wrongful death lawsuit that will surely come. Already, Riveras make-up artist, who was also killed in the crash, started legal proceedings against the plane manufacturer, owner, operator, and others, to allow for an investigation into the accident. Her estate initiated the court action for the purpose of seeking multimillion dollar judgments against all who were responsible for the crash.
In Riveras case, until an estate is opened and someone is appointed as the executor of her estate, no one will have the legal authority to pursue a lawsuit for Riveras heirs. Given the questions surrounding the validity of the letter, and the fact that a spouse normally has first priority to be named as executor in the absence of a valid will, it may take some time until a person is put in charge of her estate through probate court.
Certainly, with everything at stake and so much uncertainly, there is little question that fighting will erupt at some point. That is sadly the case when people do not take the proper steps to complete their estate planning and update it with important life events like divorces. Using shortcuts like letters usually do not work, and often cause more problems than they avoid. Further, when it is clear that a marriage is over, the documents should be updated with the help of an experienced attorney even before the divorce is final.
Well keep an eye on Jenni Riveras Estate to see what turmoil does develop, and whether Rivera had proper estate planning in place to protect her heirs. In the meantime, you can share this story with your clients to help remind them of the importance of proper estate planning.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter