In 2006, Taylor Swift burst onto the music scene with her breakout country single, Tim McGraw. Nearly 20 years, 10 albums, and 51 million record sales later, she has become a household name.
Taylor Swift is also no stranger to the legal field. From her sexual assault countersuit against D.J. David Mueller in which she symbolically won $1.00; to a copyright infringement lawsuit of the lyrics to her 2014 smash hit Shake It Off; to, most recently, the Ticketmaster sale fiasco surrounding her Eras Tour that led to a Senate hearing, Taylor is regularly the subject of legal cases, inquiries, and articles. However, as probate litigation attorneys, we rarely have much to contribute to the subjects of personal injury and intellectual property. So, when Taylor Swift’s single and music movie, as she calls it, Anti-Hero came out in which Taylor imagined her future daughter-in-law killing her for her money, a will reading that leaves a funeral in shambles, and her family proclaiming “she’s laughing up at us from hell,” you can imagine how excited we were to imagine the fight over her estate plan and litigating on behalf of the cats (Meredith, Olivia, and Benjamin) set to receive Taylor’s entire estate. This is, after all, the kind of thing we spend all day every day hearing about and working to solve.
Situations like the ones depicted in Anti-Hero might seem exaggerated, but we hear stories like them every day. The reality is with an estate the size of hers, an inheritance dispute is very likely. From a probate litigation standpoint, what we hear from the song lyrics, and see in the video are big red flags of a percolating estate dispute. A poorly written estate plan can mean the difference between your wishes being followed and people you want disinherited receiving your estate. So, let’s talk about what went wrong for Taylor’s estate in the Anti-Hero music movie and what litigation her beneficiaries (her cats) can expect!
In the video, Taylor’s fictional future children, Preston and Chad Swift, read the will at her funeral service. We get to see a brief clip of The Last Will and Testament of Taylor A. Swift which helps greatly with this analysis. The will we see in the video reads:
The Last Will and Testament of Taylor A. Swift
I bequeath a majority of my assets to the following:
Meredith Gray Swift
Olivia Benson Swift
Benjamin Button Swift
The beach house will be converted into a cat sanctuary for the aforementioned.
And to my children I leave $0.13, each.
Through the dialogue of the music movie, Taylor adds “P.S. there’s no secret encoded message that means something else. Love, Taylor.”
What does Taylor’s estate have to worry about?
Inheriting only $0.13 each, Preston and Chad have little to lose if they contest the Will, that is assuming there is more to the Will, and that more includes an enforceable no contest clause. If Taylor really wants to discourage Preston and Chad from contesting, she’ll need to add a few more zeroes to the $0.13 to ensure they have some real risk of loss.
This, of course, presumes that Preston and Chad would inherit more than $0.13 each if their will contest is successful, which we can’t be certain of. For example, if they successfully contest Taylor’s Will leaving her estate intestate, or without a will, then they as her natural heirs would inherit her entire estate. Alternatively, however, in the bridge of Anti-Hero, Taylor sings that her daughter-in-law thinks she “left them in the will,” which may mean there is another will that pre-dates the $0.13 will and arguably provides Preston and Chad with a sizable chunk of the estate if they were to succeed in their contest of the $0.13 will. To get back to the original will, estate litigation counsel for Preston and Chad will likely attack the will in the following ways:
- The will does not meet legal formalities;
- The will leaves assets to those who cannot legally inherit (cats); and
- At the writing of the will, Taylor was not competent to create a will.
So, first, what does it mean for a will not to meet the “formalities?” Under California law, a will must meet the following requirements to be a valid will:
- Must be in writing;
- Be signed by the testator; and
- If the material terms are not in the testator’s handwriting, then the will must be signed by at least two witnesses who are present at the same time the will is signed to speak to the testator’s capacity.
Here, Preston and Chad may try to argue that the will is not valid because it does not meet the requirements above. We know that the will is in writing and signed “Love, Taylor.” However, it’s unclear whether the will itself is in Taylor’s handwriting, and if it is not, then we don’t know if the will was signed by at least two witnesses who saw Taylor sign the will. If neither condition is met, the will is not valid, so even though Taylor wanted to leave her cats the estate, Chad and Preston would take under the prior version of the will.
Second, Taylor’s named beneficiaries are her cats: Meredith Gray Swift, Olivia Benson Swift, and Benjamin Button Swift. But that begs the question, can you leave your property to your pets? Unfortunately, Meredith, Olivia, and Benjamin would likely not be able to inherit themselves because they are cats and animals cannot inherit. The solution would have been for Taylor to create a pet trust to be funded with her estate assets and managed by a trust company or private professional fiduciary for their benefit, usually with charities taking the remainder of the estate after the cats’ lifetime.
If Chad and Preston are able to successfully argue that, because, under the law, you may not leave your estate to animals, and, therefore, there are no actual named beneficiaries, invalidating the will means we either go back to the original will, if there is one, or intestacy, where under either case everything likely will go to Chad and Preston.
Separately, Chad and Preston also may argue Taylor was not competent to make the will. Under California law everyone enjoys a presumption of capacity, meaning Chad and Preston will have the burden to prove she was incapacitated when she made the will. To prove their case, Chad and Preston likely will try to rely on the fact that she left her estate, save for $0.26, to her cats! If that’s the best they have, their argument will fail, because the standard for capacity to make a will is relatively low. To satisfy this standard, Taylor only needed to know she was signing a will, what she owned, and who her heirs were. She likely satisfied that standard when she wrote her “Last Will and Testament” and gave $0.13 to each of her kids and the rest to her cats. Unless Chad and Preston can come up with some medical records or other evidence of incapacity, this argument likely will fail.
What can Taylor’s Estate do to combat this?
Unfortunately, once she passes away, there is little Taylor’s estate can do. Taylor’s Will does not even name an executor of her estate. Without a named executor, Chad and Preston will be able to petition the court to administer Taylor’s estate, even if the vast majority of it is intended to benefit her cats. Obviously, the cats can’t serve as executor.
There also exists the possibility that Chad and Preston may never discover Taylor’s Will and, therefore, never bring it forward to be administered by the probate court (although they would have a duty to lodge it with the probate court when they do find it). Typically, and often to people’s surprise, wills are private – not public – documents. They are not recorded or otherwise registered with the courts or any other public agency prior to a decedent’s passing. Either Taylor’s previous will or the state’s intestacy laws will dictate to whom her estate will be distributed, in this case, Chad and Preston.
What can Taylor (and you) do to protect her (and your) assets from this fate while alive?
Taylor should contact an estate planning attorney to be sure her estate plan is documented appropriately so her estate assets go where she wants to them to go. There is no substitute for a good estate planner or competent estate planning.
First, a good estate planner will be sure to understand Taylor’s desires, and then craft a comprehensive estate plan that achieves Taylor’s goals while complying with all legal requirements and minimizing the likelihood of success of a contest by Chad and Preston.
Second, a good estate planner will coordinate a family meeting to help Chad and Preston understand from their mother’s own lips why she is only leaving them $0.13, and why the cats are to be cared for luxuriously.
Third, a good estate planner will build a relationship with their client to stay informed of changes in their client’s life and make recommended changes to their estate plan that address various life events – i.e. marriage, divorce, children, charitable desires, death, etc. While Anti-Hero may on its face seem exaggerated, it serves to highlight real-world estate planning issues that turn into the estate disputes we handle every day.
 Recording Industry Association of America, Top Artists (Albums), https://www.riaa.com/gold-platinum/?tab_active=top_tallies&ttt=TAA#search_section, Retrieved March 13, 2023.
RMO LLP provides personal and efficient inheritance dispute services to individual and institutional clients. The firm’s attorneys focus on probate litigation involving contested trust, estate, probate, and conservatorship matters. RMO has offices serving clients with probate disputes throughout California, Florida, Texas, Kansas and Missouri. For more information, please visit https://rmolawyers.com/.