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A Star Extinguished: Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

Two years ago to this day, a promising young actor's life was cut short by a tragic accident at his Los Angeles home. Anton Yelchin, age 27, was killed in his driveway when his SUV rolled back and pinned him against his security fence and mailbox. Yelchin rose to prominence for his portrayal of the USS Enterprise navigator, Pavel Chekov, in the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise.

Yelchin died without a Will leaving an estate valued at approximately $1.4 million consisting of cash, a home in the Studio City neighbourhood of Los Angeles and investments. He was survived by his parents, who applied to be appointed as the administrators of his estate. In my reading about Yelchin's untimely demise, I did not come across any references to a long-term romantic partner or children. His parents will therefore be the sole beneficiaries of his estate and any future royalties from licensing his image.

Shortly after being appointed as administrators, Yelchin's parents filed a lawsuit against the SUV manufacturer on the basis that defects in the vehicle's design caused their son's death. The vehicle model had been recalled about two months prior to the accident over issues with the gear shifters. The lawsuit was very recently settled for an undisclosed amount.

Given Yelchin's station in life and the lack of complicating family relationships, his estate appears to have escaped the courtroom drama that has befallen some of his colleagues' estates in recent years. However, some valuable estate planning lessons remain, and are explored in more detail below.

How would the administration play out in Alberta?

The state of dying without a Will is called an intestacy. If a person dies intestate, that means there is no document appointing a person to deal with the Estate and someone will have to apply to the Court to obtain permission to gather assets, pay debts and ultimately distribute them to the beneficiaries. In Alberta, the Estate Administration Act ranks the people entitled to apply to administer the Estate in order of priority: spouse or adult interdependent partner, child, grandchild or other descendant, parent, sibling, nephew or niece, other qualifying next of kin, a person who has an interest in the estate because of a relationship with the deceased, a claimant and finally, the government. Where there is more than one person in a particular class, they have an equal priority to apply and the Court will have to weigh the evidence to decide who the best person for the job is.

The Wills and Succession Act sets out the distribution scheme, also in order of priority. It first considers whether the deceased has a spouse, an adult interdependent partner, or descendants (children, grandchildren, etc.). If the deceased has any of these relationships, the legislation identifies the share each of them is to receive. If the deceased does not have any of the above, their estate will be distributed to his or her parents in equal shares. Although this order of beneficiaries may adequately reflect the intentions of some, it does not allow for any exceptions. For instance, if the deceased has a serious boyfriend or girlfriend who is not a common law partner, that partner would not be eligible to receive any part of the intestate's estate.  Therefore, the result for Yelchin's estate from an administration and distribution perspective would have been the same in Alberta as it was in California.

With respect to the lawsuit against the SUV manufacturer, in Alberta the Fatal Accidents Act  allows a lawsuit to be brought against a wrongdoer for the benefit of the deceased's surviving partner, child, parent or sibling if the deceased person could have sued for the injury him or herself had they not been killed. The lawsuit is typically commenced by the executor or administrator, but the affected family members may do so in their own name if the  personal representative has not done so within a year of death. Yelchin's parents likely would have had the same ability to sue the manufacturer in Alberta as they did in the United States.

Lessons learned

Preparing a Will is often perceived as a task for individuals with significant fixed assets, children, or nearing the end of their life. However, Anton Yelchin's story, among many others (for closer to home, see the story of Matt Snell), shows that these life events are not requirements for preparing a Will. A Will assists individuals to communicate their intentions for the administration and distribution of their estate after their death and although the Alberta legislation sets out a fall-back scheme, the default rules may not be in line with your intentions. For example, what if Yelchin's parents had substance abuse problems or gambling issues? He may have wanted to benefit his friends or a charity rather than having his entire Estate go to his parents who may squander the assets on activities that Yelchin may not have approved of. Luckily that was not the case, but it is not an entirely unrealistic scenario.

Similarly, a Power of Attorney and a Personal Directive are also important documents to consider as part of your estate plan. These documents deal with financial and personal care decisions and take effect when a person is alive, but determined to not have capacity to make decisions regarding those matters.

Finally, without a Will, there is also a greater delay in the administration of an Estate because no one has the legal authority to deal with assets until the Court appoints an administrator. There may be further delay if there is a dispute between family members about who the administrator should be. In contrast, the Will speaks from the moment of death and gives the individual chosen by the deceased immediate authority to begin securing and dealing with property.

If you have questions about administering an intestate estate, or are wondering whether you need a Will, Power of Attorney or Personal Directive, feel free to contact us.  As always, thank you for reading!