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Did US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger Pass Away without an Estate Plan?

President Richard Nixon named Warren Burger chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1969. Burger’s court upheld the 1966 Miranda decision, and Burger voted with the majority in the court’s landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, establishing women’s constitutional right to have abortions. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. In summary, Burger was a man who greatly influenced and shaped the laws in this country. This is why it is shocking that popular opinion dictates he did not have an estate plan, thereby causing his estate to suffer financially. But would a chief justice of the Supreme Court actually be so careless?

In May of 1994, nine days after his wife’s death, Chief Justice Burger typed out his will on his home computer. After typing 176 words on one sheet of paper he was finished. According to attorney George Dodge of Arlington, Va., who wrote a story in his county’s bar association journal, Burger’s will had typographical errors and it failed to give his executors the powers needed to manage the estate, including the ability to sell property and pay taxes. Mr. Dodge publicly stated that Burger’s $1.8 million estate was subject to $450,000.00 in taxes, due largely to the fact that the estate tax exemption at the time was $600,000.00 (or almost $650,000.00 for decedents in states like Virginia with a sponge tax) and his estate plan did not have any provisions to offer protection. Mr. Dodge argued that many of Burger’s errors could have been avoided had he hired an attorney to set up his estate plan. Many news outlets took Mr. Dodge’s word as fact and went on to publish numerous stories about Burger’s foolish mistake, openly mocking his alleged incompetence.

In all actuality, Burger and his wife, Elvera (who passed a year before), did indeed consult lawyers and took steps to minimize their tax liability. This is clear from Elvera’s will, which Mr. Dodge said he didn’t consider. According to the preliminary probate court records, Mrs. Burger’s will left $650,000.00 to their children, using up her federal estate tax exemption equivalent of the unified credit. The estate tax on the remaining assets thus was appropriately deferred until the Chief Justice’s death one year later. With this in mind, the Burgers’ estate plan may have worked sufficiently to maximize the available credits and to defer the federal estate tax until the death of the surviving spouse. James H. Maloney, the estate’s attorney, also noted that there were two inter vivos trusts and various lifetime gifts made by the Burgers as part of their estate plan.

Admittedly, it is true that Chief Justice Burger’s “homemade” will cost his estate the price of probate and additional paperwork. For example, he didn’t include language allowing his executor to sell real estate, and he didn’t create a pour-over will, which would have sent his assets to a trust and avoided probate altogether.

A valuable lesson to learn from Chief Justice Warren Burger is the importance of a comprehensive estate plan. One must take into account that estate planning documents work in conjunction. Drafting only a will does not avoid probate, and the creation of only a trust will not avoid the federal estate tax if your assets are above the allowable exemption. There are numerous considerations that must be taken into account when creating an estate plan, and contacting an estate planning attorney to put together an individualized plan is essential in order to avoid wasted time and money.

This article is a service of Kundani & Chang LLP. We are an award-winning law firm that specializes in business and estate planning for clients like you. The goal for every family is to stay educated on all topics like this, avoid probate, avoid estate taxes, and build a legacy for you and your loved ones. What sets our firm apart is that we build lasting, lifelong relationships with our clients. They rely on us to keep them updated, provide sound legal counsel, and be there for them immediately if any problems should ever arise. The best part is we don’t charge hourly fees to our families, so you never have to worry about speaking to us. If you’re ready to keep your family out of Court, contact us today to schedule an initial consultation or visit our website at www.CaliforniaEstateLawyers.com.

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