Prince vs. The Barnes Foundation: do you even need a will?

Catherine wheel firework

I’ve found myself quite avoidant to the task of getting a will.

Then again, it’s a question worth asking: Do you really need a will?

Now, I Am Not A Lawyer, as the saying goes, but I do have some thoughts on the matter.

A will, recap

As we know, a will is a legal document that states what a person wishes to be done with themselves and their assets following their death.

You don’t know what will happen to your stuff after you die, obviously. But a will ensures that your directives should be carried out to the best of the law and the ability to execute it. You can decide what assets you leave to whom, be they your children, parents, siblings, or anyone else you’d like. It’s your stuff, after all.

That’s the theory, at least.

If you die without a will, this is known as dying “intestate“. The rules that apply to your assets will vary based on the state you live(d) in, as well as your marital status. Property is divided up according to a complex succession of relatives (parents, children, spouse, etc.).

(Personally, I’ve always wondered how one actually divides an estate in half. Is someone from the state of Oregon going to come in and price out my collection of rare Catherine Wheel 12″s? Do they grade for condition fairly?)

I’ll concede that a will matters much more if you have significant assets. If you’re a college student with only student loan debt to your name (and not a single Catherine Wheel record), it could seem like there’s not much reason to have a will. What is there to disburse?

Contrast that with someone with a half-million in real estate and twenty years of a 401(k). A will makes total sense there.

But then again, should this college student meet an untimely death, the family is going to be devastated enough as it is. Do you really want them to have to go through a state-run probate process in addition to grieving? Wouldn’t it be better to give your loved ones clear directives?

This makes even more sense when talking about a Living Will and Power of Attorney, two documents that go along with the will, that state what to do with you when you’re alive but are not able to make your own decisions. Putting this in place in advance seems like a decent thing to do.

So a will is looking like a good idea.


2016 was a terrible year for musicians dying. We lost David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and, of course, Prince.

Prince in a rare non-purple outfit. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Prince lived in a complex in Minnesota called Paisley Park., a Graceland-like establishment. He was reported to be worth over $300 million.

Prince died without a will.

When I heard this, I figured it had to be a joke. You don’t become Mr. Love Symbol, and have all that litigating experience, and yet not ever bother to get around to fill out a will. What was he thinking?

Making things worse, he had no surviving relatives save for his siblings, who at this very moment are standing in line outside Paisley Park, waiting to see what they get.

What an incredible waste. Prince could have donated his assets to a foundation, a charity, or everyone who ever sang his songs at karaoke. (And yes, he could have specifically given to his siblings, so they didn’t have to wonder.) But instead, now the state needs to come in and deal with a giant, high profile probate case, one that’s sure to drag on interminably.

This, my friends, is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Albert Barnes and his Foundation

On the other hand, let us not believe that wills are a panacea. For this, we need only to look to suburban Philadelphia, where I’m originally from, and a man who was rich, loved art, and hated Philadelphia.

Alfred Barnes was an art collector who was also professionally lucky, cashing out of his investments just prior to the Great Depression. He took a liking to some then-little-known artists like Renoir, Cézanne, and Picasso and bought a bunch of their paintings.

Albert Barnes
Would you want to mess with his will? Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

His collection, under the aegis of the Barnes Foundation, is worth something like a zillion dollars today.

In his will, he stipulated that he wanted the collection to never come to Philadelphia. (For more information on this surprisingly engaging story, see the documentary The Art of the Steal.) But, though the will was set in stone, over the course of a few decades after his death, through various maneuvers and dealings, financial mismanagement and situations not all his fault, the control came under the city after all (who had a vested interest in getting to it), and moved his collection to Philadelphia where they now reside.

So be aware that it’s one thing to have a one-time disbursal of assets, but quite another to set up a system in perpetuity. A will doesn’t get you everything you want.


Even with all this in mind, I still think a will is a good idea to have for pretty much everyone. It’s not like life insurance, where there are some cases where you really don’t need it.

Not all of us will sell over 100 million records, or have an art collection to rival any major city, but all of us have others who will be affected by our passing. We didn’t come in with an instruction manual, but we can go out with one.

Now would someone tell me how to put one together for myself please?

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