So many of us admired Joan Rivers for so many reasons. She was the first woman to have her own talk show; she was the first “permanent guest host” of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She survived a difficult marriage and her husband’s suicide; she made multiple comebacks, and she was really, really funny.
There is something missing from that list, though, that we have learned more about since her death in September. It should not surprise anyone that Joan Rivers was also a savvy businesswoman, and she put her business sense to work when she wrote her estate plan.
News outlets have reported that Joan’s only child, Melissa, was the sole heir or the primary heir of Joan’s estate. That turns out not to be the case. While her will, filed in New York in December, appointed executors for her estate, a pour-over clause names a living trust as the sole recipient of the comedienne’s assets.
Remember, trusts are extremely flexible estate planning tools — there is more to any trust than an estate tax benefit. Joan apparently amended or rewrote the trust document several times over the years. She was determined, it seems, to see that the provisions of the trust reflect her own priorities.
And, as honest and open as she was about her personal life, Joan may have wanted to protect her privacy, to spare her family and friends the inevitable media scrutiny and speculation. While wills are open to the public, trust documents are not.
Joan took another unusual step in her estate plan: She stated that she was a resident of New York, and she added that her domicile was in California. Probate law generally doesn’t allow testators to be in two places at once. In Joan’s case, though, she specifically stated that the probate laws of New York would apply unless she was living in California at the time of her death.
The difference between a domicile and a residence is important. You may have multiple residences — you may have a house in Bryn Mawr, a farm in Lancaster County and a in Cape May. Your domicile, however, is your home base, the community you belong to, where you expect to spend your retirement years.
Joan Rivers died before she had a chance to return home. She was 81.
Trial & Heirs, “Joan Rivers Protected Her Family With Good Estate Planning,” Danielle and Andrew Mayoras, Dec. 11, 2014
Investment News, “Joan Rivers’ estate planning gambit: A New York state of residence,” Darla Mercado, Dec. 11, 2014