This month, the big news out of the late Jerry Lewis’ estate was the decision to disinherit six sons from his will. Jerry was married to his first wife, Patti Palmer, from 1944 to 1980. It is the children from this marriage, including the world famous Gary Lewis (of Gary Lewis and the Playboys fame) who were cut out of the will.
Jerry Lewis was a legendary performer of epic proportions. His career spanned decades and included work as an actor, singer, producer, and of course, charity host. In his early years, Jerry Lewis teamed up with Dean Martin as the famous comedy duo, Martin and Lewis. This act lasted for a decade from 1946 to 1956. While Dean Martin was famous for being a core member of the Rat Pack (along with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.), Jerry Lewis was still considered a “visiting member” of that illustrious group. So in a roundabout way, Martin and Lewis were Rat Packers. Later on, Jerry’s fame continued in stage performances and in the movies. His longest lasting recurring position was his 40-plus year stint as the annual host of the Jerry Lewis Telethon, raising over two billion dollars for muscular dystrophy research.
Few people (if any) will ever really know why Jerry Lewis disinherited his six sons from his estate. From a legal standpoint, Jerry’s wishes were very clear. He explicitly stated that he “intentionally excluded” his sons “and their descendants as beneficiaries” of the will. Jerry further wrote “it being my intention that they shall receive no benefits” from the estate. For reasons discussed further in this article, such an explicit statement is quite necessary in order to reduce the risk of the will being challenged in Court.
Distribution of Assets
The purpose of a will is to legally express a person’s desires for the distribution of their assets after they are deceased. The will really is a person’s final statement on this Earth. Over the years, many norms have developed that generally guide Courts on how to interpret a deceased person’s desires. For example, most people would like their money to go to their spouses and children. Anytime that a will expresses wishes that fall outside the bounds of these norms, the Courts may scrutinize the situation more closely.
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In the case of Jerry Lewis’ will, the assets were left to his second wife and their child. Jerry was married to his second wife for over thirty years. With that much time married to one individual, and with an explicit statement disinheriting his six sons from the previous marriage, nothing problematic appears to have occurred with Jerry’s will. Courts would be a little more suspicious if Jerry was married to his second wife for say, one month.
As with everything in the law, wills are certainly open to scrutiny from the Courts. There may be more than one story in the media of giant fortunes being contested by family members of the deceased. Regardless, it is still preferential for everyone to make a written will (properly signed and witnessed of course). The consequence of not having a will is that the government will decide how to distribute any assets.
When a deceased person leaves no written will, their estate goes into “intestacy”. In the United States, the rules of intestacy vary from state to state. However, the general rule is that assets first go to the spouse, then to the children and grandchildren. If none of these individuals are alive (or exist), then intestacy grants the assets to parents, siblings and grandparents.
For example, if you want your assets to be distributed to a close friend, your wishes must be clearly expressed in legally binding writing. Without a will, your assets are distributed according to the rules set out by the government, even if these rules run contrary to your desires.