It was recently revealed that the late Paul Walker left his entire estate—valued at approximately $25 million—to his 15-year-old daughter, Meadow.
As reported, Paul Walker named his father as the executor of his will and his mother, Cheryl, as the guardian of Meadow’s person and now-$25 million estate. Prior to his death, Meadow lived with her father but now lives in Hawaii with her mother, Rebecca Soteros. Already, this decision is causing people to wonder why Paul would name someone other than Meadow’s biological mother as Meadow’s guardian.
In California, a deceased parent’s nomination of a guardian of the person for a minor child usually has very little practical effect when the other parent survives. This is primarily due to two considerations. First, since the surviving parent typically has custody of the child, it is not uncommon for the nomination of a guardian of the person of the minor child to take effect only upon the death of both parents. Second, under the California Probate Code, one parent can make the nomination only if the other parent (a) joins in the nomination, (b) consents to the nomination, (c) is dead, (d) lacks legal capacity, or (e) is in included in the category of parent whose consent is not required for an adoption. Also, the California Family Code requires that the preferences of the child be given “due weight” if the minor is able to form an intelligent choice. Given all this, it is unlikely that Cheryl will be appointed the guardian of the person for Meadow without either Rebecca’s consent or a strong showing that Rebecca is unable to take care of Meadow.
On the other hand, it is very possible that Cheryl will be appointed as the guardian of the estate for Meadow. California law allows a parent to nominate a guardian of the estate to oversee the management of any assets given to a minor child by that parent—regardless of whether the other parent is willing or able to manage the assets. This means that it is perfectly acceptable (and not all that unusual in these types of family situations) for Paul to nominate someone other than Rebecca to manage Meadow’s massive estate.
Although most people are focusing on who is going to be Meadow’s guardian, perhaps the more interesting question is why Paul did not establish a testamentary trust for his teenage daughter. Based on available information, when Meadow turns eighteen the guardianship will terminate and Meadow will have complete control over her $25 million estate—something most eighteen-year-olds are ill-equipped to handle. Had he instead left his fortune to Meadow in trust, Paul could have set more appropriate parameters on Meadow’s access to his assets, such as keeping the assets in trust until Meadow is older. Given the fact that Paul went to the effort to create a will, it is curious why he did not, instead, avail himself—and his estate—of the protections afforded by a trust.
As we continue to watch this story unfold, no doubt we will see more instances where better estate planning could have saved Paul’s family unnecessary conflict.