Soul singer Etta James dies in California hospital

Legendary singer Etta James passed away on January 20, 2012, as she succumbed to complications due to leukemia. The world renowned singer--famous for songs such as "At Last" and "I'd Rather go Blind"--died at a Riverside, California hospital with her husband and two sons at her side.

Unfortunately, the last year of James's life was mired in a legal dispute between her husband Artis Mills and son Donto over her $1 million estate. As this unfortunate situation illustrates, proper estate planning is vital for everyone.

The legal dispute stemmed from Mills's attempts to have access to James's savings accounts, with Donto James claiming Mills should not have access because Donto was given power of attorney over his mother's affairs in 2008. Mills alleged that the power of attorney was not enforceable because James was incompetent and suffering from dementia when she signed it.

In December, a judge allowed Mills to make medical decisions for James and permitted him access to $350,000, but only for her medical care. While a more thorough estate plan may have avoided this dispute, things likely would have been worse without the documents that were in place.

When most people think of estate planning, they usually think of wills. But there is a lot more to it if you want to keep your family out of court. For example, it is important to have a living will and power of attorney documents in place and properly executed in case you suffer an unexpected accident or medical emergency.

If you fail to execute these documents, it is possible your family members, including your spouse, will lack the ability to make financial or medical decisions without going to court in order to be appointed as a guardian or conservator.

It is always best to let your family know what you want done and who should be making the decisions in case you are incapacitated. The aim of an effective estate plan is to administer a person's estate efficiently, cleanly, and with as little expense as possible. While the strength of an estate plan may not prevent certain persons from challenging it, well-executed documents can settle disputes quickly and neatly.

Source: AFP, "Jazz legend Etta James, dead at 73," Michael Thurston, Jan. 20, 2012

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