Updating Your Living Trust: A Lesson From Dennis Hopper

Updating Your Living Trust: A Lesson From Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper, an acclaimed director, photographer and artist, died of prostate cancer in 2010 at age 74. Hopper may be most remembered for his iconic role of Billy in Easy Rider, the movie that became the cinematic symbol of the ‘60s, an anthem to macho bravado and rebellion. He and Peter Fonda completed a drug deal in Southern California, jumped on their Harleys and crossed the country in search of spiritual truth. We all know that spiritual truth can be elusive, but Hopper appears to have seen the light when it came to his marriage. He died in the midst of a particularly nasty divorce from wife number five, Victoria, who was 6 years younger than his oldest daughter.  

Dennis had filed for divorce, accusing Victoria of being insane, inhuman, and volatile. Victoria countered with Hopper’s being mentally incompetent, insisting that his adult children influenced him to file the divorce and alter his estate plan, eliminating both Victoria and the couple’s six-year-old daughter, Galen (now 9).

The divorce was definitely not going well . . .

Dennis got a restraining order against Victoria, but she wouldn’t move out, despite testimony from doctors that she created so much stress that Hopper kept throwing up his cancer meds. There was a very compelling reason why Victoria wasn’t going anywhere–as per a prenuptial agreement, she would receive one-quarter of Hopper’s estate, but only if they were still living together and married at the time of his death. 

Dennis Hopper had wisely updated his Estate Planning documents during his divorce proceeding and made sure that 60% of his estate still passed to his adult children and that Galen was protected. Dennis died before the divorce was concluded, but he had taken steps to protect his heirs and disinherit Victoria, removing her from both his life insurance policy and his Living Trust. 

The Estate Planning documents left Victoria with virtually nothing, so she filed a $45M lawsuit after he died. She raised undue influence allegations against Dennis’ children and claimed that Dennis had abused and wrongly forced her to sign the prenuptial agreement. Hopper’s Estate countersued, accusing Victoria of removing artwork worth millions of dollars from Dennis Hopper’s home.

Two years later . . .

When the dust finally settled after two more years of litigation and untold millions of dollars in legal fees, a compromise was reached. Victoria received about 17% of the estate, an estimated $40M. While this appears to be a great deal for Victoria, the payout was earmarked to come out of the 40% share of the Estate and Trust that was left for Victoria’s and Dennis’ daughter, Galen.

There’s a moral to this story

When your advisers tell you to update your Estate Planning documents for, or in anticipation of, important life events—take a lesson from Dennis Hopper. Important life events include divorces, remarriages and the birth of a child. For the most part, Hopper’s heirs received what he wanted them to. Had he not proactively updated his estate-planning documents, the outcome would have been different and all of the heirs would have paid a much steeper price.

Is it time to update your Estate Planning documents?

Here are 8 Signs That It’s Time to Update Your Living Trust. Stop into one of California Document Preparers’ three Bay Area offices. We’re here to help.