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john singleton

Legal and Life Lessons Learned From the Passing of the Great John Singleton

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I remember as a child watching Boyz in the Hood with mixed emotions. Although I could not relate to many of the characters’ issues, as a Black teen growing up in the Appalachian mountains, it was a relief to see Black people in a Black community living their Black lives.

I remember feeling proud that the filmmaker was a Black man and that he wrote the story. Admittedly, I was also sad that the story depicted realities for some Black people in America.

John Singleton on set of his debut film Boyz N the Hood, 1991.
BY AARON RAPOPORT/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES
After reading the news about John Singleton’s health and the rumors of conflict it brought up for his family, I again had mixed feelings. His work and his tenacity in an industry that is not inviting to Black people has had an indelible impact on our community and on film.
credit: Biography.com

My gratitude and pride in his work maintain. Unfortunately, the circumstances of his legal affairs and some of the responses I’ve seen on social media gave me a sense of horror, albeit quite different from that I felt in watching Boyz in the Hood.

Luvvie Ajayi (@luvvie) pleaded with her public to basically get your shit in order, presumably in response to Mr. Singleton’s situation. Her post is timely because celebrities’ stories often astonish and spark conversation. However, I read some of the comments with great concern and, quite frankly, frustration.

Quite a few people suggested websites where you can get your power of attorney documents, wills, and etc. done for cheap or even free. Some folks suggested to simply write your wishes down and give them to someone you trust. Others expressed that they don’t know what to do because they are not married or have kids.

There were, of course, people who recommended working with an attorney and offered advice that is legally sound. God bless you!

From my 12+ years as an attorney working in death and dirt*, I believe we as a community don’t do ourselves justice when it comes to the power we have to do estate planning that works for us with the help of an attorney.

john singleton
Credit (AP Photo/Keystone, Alessandro della Valle)

Disclaimer: non-Black people also don’t value hiring attorneys to do this work. Most Americans don’t. However, not only are black people not planning, we are also dealing with all the adversity our country has to offer. We’re undermining our own ability to fight back against all the systemic bullsh*t we’ve had to and continue to fight.

If Mr. Singleton’s condition had continued, someone would have to seek appointment from a judge to make decisions on his behalf regarding health care and assets. If multiple people applied or if others contested the application, there would be a delay in taking care of him and his assets and it would have cost a lot.

The initial fees for conservatorship in California are $1,115, and they go higher. Contrast this with an estate plan prepared by an attorney that includes a financial power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney, which would cost between $800-3,500 in California. Mr. Singleton’s plan would have likely costed more given the mix and complexity of assets, but it would have saved thousands of dollars and preserved relationships.

What sounds better? A person other than you making the decision of who can care for you at great expense or you making the decision for yourself at some expense?

A new set of challenges come into play in addressing his estate now that he has passed. If he didn’t have an estate plan, and it appears that he did not, there will be significant legal fees that drain his estate.

Mr. Singleton had multiple children. For any child born from a relationship that was not a marriage, there will be legal fees, and likely emotional pain, to confirm if the children were legitimated and, therefore, entitled to inherit. I have estates where thousands of dollars have been spent just confirm if a child is an heir.

john singleton
Maya Angelou with John Singleton in 1993, the year “Poetic Justice” was released.CreditCreditColumbia Pictures, via Everett Collection

For the minor children, additional legal fees will have to be paid to seek guardianship of each minor child’s estate until they turn 18 years old in order to manage their inheritance. I’ve had custodial parents who can’t qualify for the bond required to manage their child’s inheritance. So it sits in limbo.

Like Aretha Franklin, Mr. Singleton apparently personally owned assets totaling more than the threshold amount for consideration of estate taxes. His assets will be significantly diminished to pay the taxes and assets may have to be sold in order to pay the estate tax. His creations could be sold to pay the IRS.

Then there was his significant other. If he doesn’t have a will or trust that provides for her or if he didn’t list her as a beneficiary on a financial account, she likely gets nothing.

I’ve had estates where the deceased had a will that they never updated even after having a kid and after getting married. Their spouse and adult child didn’t inherit anything. Instead, their surviving parent inherited everything, including the home.

If you haven’t worked with an attorney to create a plan customized to your unique, beautiful life I hope you find the following encouraging:

  • you are worth every dollar you spend with the attorney;
  • many attorneys accept payment plans;
  • an attorney gives you a lot more than the documents, i.e. you get intimate counsel online and boxed plans can’t give you;
  • people with no partner or spouse can do so many wonderful things with their assets like give back to your favorite organizations and schools or treat your besties a life celebrating trip.

 

I could go on but I want to hear from you. If you haven’t created an estate plan with the help of an attorney, why not? What’s holding you back?

I’d love to hear from you and I will share some additional horror stories I’ve seen.

Let us know in the comments or by sending a message through my website.

 

– Contributed by Mavis Gragg

Mavis Gragg is an attorney at the Gragg Law Firm, PLLC in Durham, North Carolina where she specializes in estate planning and estate administration. She is very passionate about maintaining and growing Black wealth through sound legal strategies and problem solving. When she is not being a justice girl, she can be found at an art gallery, trotting the globe, or on the dance floor.

 

Feature Image: John Singleton on the set of Poetic Justice in Los Angeles, 1993.BY ANTHONY BARBOZA/GETTY IMAGES.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the information. I went to my local bank and filled out a form called a P.O.D. It is a legal form that allows a person you name to withdraw your funds in the event of your death. The person named has only to supply your death certificate and there social security number and I.D. P.O.D stands for Payable upon(on) Death. It is FREE and keeps your bank funds from probate court.

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