Whitney Houston's death raises questions about her estate plan

The death of Whitney Houston this past week in a California hotel was an occasion to mourn the singer's untimely death, and to remember how her soaring mezzo-soprano voice brought joy to the lives of millions. But at the same time many people wondered how much money she had accumulated and who would be the beneficiary of all that wealth.

Houston earned a great deal of money during her career from movies, record contracts and song royalties. Experts estimate that her estate will grow substantially as nostalgic listeners purchase her music in the coming weeks and months. Michael Jackson's estate experienced a similar, though larger, financial bump following his death. This has led some to speculate whether Houston created a revocable trust for her young daughter, the presumed main beneficiary of her estate.

Houston's daughter, only 18 years old, stands to inherit a princely sum. The question is what estate planning mechanisms Houston had in place. Some believe that she would have been wise to create a revocable living trust for her daughter so that the inheritance is distributed a little at a time. Others suggest that if Houston had a life insurance policy, she should have made a trust the beneficiary for the same reason.

Trusts can be an effective part of an estate plan and can help avoid the costs of probate. Trusts may also be appropriate in cases like Houston's, where a beneficiary is young. Even if a beneficiary is financially mature, it may be prudent to stagger payments to the beneficiary through a trust to ensure that the inheritance is not squandered.

Source: ABCNEWS.com, "Whitney Houston's Estate Expected to Get Boost After Death, But Less Than Michael Jackson," Susanna Kim, Feb. 14, 2012.

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