“A will is a public document. Once the probate process begins—which is what happens when you use a will as an estate planning device—anyone can view it.”
Comedian Jerry Lewis died last month of heart failure at the age of 91. He left behind a wife, six children from a previous marriage, one adopted daughter and an estate worth about $50 million. His daughter Danielle, who was the comedian’s manager, confirmed that “he passed peacefully at home of natural causes with his loving family at his side.”
However, not everyone in that loving family will see money from his estate. Forbes’ recent article, “Jerry Lewis Disinherited 5 of His Kids, And Here's Why We Know,” explains that because a will is a public document, we know exactly what Jerry left and to whom.
Specifically, we know that one of the provisions in Lewis' will states:
“I have intentionally excluded GARY LEWIS, RONALD LEWIS, ANTHONY JOSEPH LEWIS, CHRISTOPHER JOSEPH LEWIS, SCOTT ANTHONY LEWIS and JOSEPH CHRISTOPHER LEWIS and their descendants as beneficiaries of my estate, it being my intention that they shall receive no benefits hereunder.”
Jerry used the word "intentionally" intentionally. It’s clear what he was doing. If a will is vague or hard to interpret, ascertaining the testator’s intent can be a challenge. However, Lewis was crystal clear that he wanted to disinherit the six children he named in the will. To top it off, he made certain that his intentions are clear by adding "and their descendants."
The couple’s sixth child, Joseph, died of a drug overdose in 2009. Lewis and his first wife were married for 36 years. Gary, one of their children, went on to become a successful musician.
Lewis makes no mention of why he decided to disinherit all the children from his first marriage. Legally, it doesn't matter. He had the right to distribute his assets the way he wanted.
Lewis’s estate will be passed to his widow, SanDee Pitnick. Next in line to inherit his fortune, should something happen to his wife, is his 25-year-old adopted daughter Danielle. He named his wife as his personal representative.
Lewis is believed to have left behind some real money in the form of his intellectual property. Jerry owned almost all of his most famous films outright, including 'Cinderfella,' 'The Nutty Professor' and 'Hardly Working.'
If he had created a trust, we’d never have known the details of the estate. This is because trusts aren’t public documents. In addition, a trust could have helped reduce or eliminate estate taxes, provided protection from creditors and spared his family the time and expense of the probate process. I am always amazed when celebrities choose the public probate process.
Reference: Forbes (September 27, 2017) “Jerry Lewis Disinherited 5 of His Kids, And Here's Why We Know”