April 21, 2017

The Administration of the Estate of Han Solo

(spoiler alert for Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Last winter I watched a theatre of fully costumed nerds collectively gasp when Han Solo met his demise in the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I was not in costume, but am otherwise 100% nerd.) The death of the iconic hero sent the remaining rebel soldiers reeling and, undoubtedly, a team of intergalactic lawyers sprang into action off-screen.

The administration of the hypothetical estate of Han Solo presents an interesting estate planning thought experiment that can illustrate some important lessons. Let’s see what we can find.

Mr. Solo was a divorced father who owned interesting assets (we’re going to need to have the Millennium Falcon appraised!) and who, by all accounts, owed money to creditors at the end of his life. When a person dies – in our galaxy or another – something must be done to distribute his or her assets. This process is often driven by the decedent’s legal documents and the lawyers who draft and interpret these documents.

A few assumptions at the outset: Let’s assume Mr. Solo was an Oregon resident and that he died without a valid Last Will. Let’s also assume Mr. Solo divorced Princess Leia, that their only child was Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren), and that he never re-married.

The Oregon Legislature has created a “back-up” plan for all those Oregon residents who die without having prepared a Last Will. This plan is outlined in section 112 of the Oregon Revised Statutes, titled “Intestate Succession and Wills.” “Intestate” is the legal term for the process that is followed when an individual dies without a valid Last Will, and the rules that govern this process are called “Intestacy Statutes.” Since Mr. Solo died intestate in our example, these are the rules that would govern the administration of his affairs.

A friend, family member, or business associate would likely need to petition the probate court to open Mr. Solo’s estate and then ask to become the court-appointed Personal Representative. Once appointed, it would be this person’s job to collect and catalog Mr. Solo’s assets and to inform his heirs and potential creditors. He or she would also need to publish notice of the Estate of Han Solo in a “publication of general circulation” – where potential creditors could learn of the estate proceeding. (There is no word on whether the Hutts read local Portland papers.)

Three months after the estate first published notice, Han Solo’s Personal Representative could begin to close the estate. This process would involve submitting an accounting to the probate court and providing the court with proof that heirs and creditors had been notified and that legitimate claims (and/or taxes) had been paid, among other filings.

Assuming Mr. Solo had assets left to distribute after creditors were paid, here is how Oregon Law would likely treat each potential beneficiary:

Princess Leia – The Princess would get nothing, as the Oregon Intestacy Statutes do not provide bequests to ex-spouses. This may seem a bit harsh given Han and Leia’s shared cinematic history; however, state intestacy rules are generally going to defer to a person’s biological family, not necessary their logical one. The result would be the same had Han Solo prepared a Last Will while he was married to Princess Leia and then subsequently divorced her, as Oregon law provides that divorce or annulment revokes all provisions in a Last Will that are in favor of the former spouse.

Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren) – Han Solo’s son Ben would also get nothing. In Oregon, as in most states, a person is prohibited from receiving assets from someone he or she abused or killed. That is the price you pay for sticking a lightsaber into your father’s chest.

Chewbacca – It is likely Han Solo’s closest friend would also receive nothing. One of the pitfalls of dying without a Last Will is that non-family members who are important to you may be inadvertently cut out of the distribution plan. Chewbacca may be able to claim joint ownership in the Millennium Falcon, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter in this case: possession is 9/10ths of the law and Chewbacca currently has the Millennium Falcon. He is probably keeping the spaceship, regardless of what some judge in Oregon says.

Everyone else – Here is where it may get messy. In Oregon, ORS 112.045 spells out the asset distribution pattern for individuals who die without a Last Will. If the decedent, like Mr. Solo, leaves no spouse or issue (kids, grandkids, etc.), then the probate court looks first to the decedent’s parents, then brothers and sisters, then grandparents, then to the issue of those grandparents.

In 2017, beloved movie heroes never really die, they are “re-booted” in some (more profitable) fashion. Han Solo is no exception, as Disney has announced that we will be getting a “Han Solo spinoff movie” in May of 2018. We will look to this film to determine whether any of Han Solo’s more distant relatives may be around and able to inherit his assets. It is also worth noting that Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be released in December of this year. In the event this movie reveals that Rey is Han Solo’s daughter, then the rest of Han’s lineage is irrelevant – if Han left a surviving child, aside from the one that killed him – that child would stand to inherit 100% of his assets.

Most attorneys will never administer the estate of a rebel war hero, but many will have to use state Intestacy Laws to determine “who gets what” in cases where no valid Last Will can be located. I am no longer practicing law, but in the financial plans I put together, I regularly see clients with significant assets and no plan to distribute them. The best advice I can often give these clients is to sit down with an estate planning attorney in order to get things properly structured, because their state’s “back-up” plan may not be in line with their desired outcome.