Celebrity Estate Plans (Part 4): Anne Heche: Can a Will be in an Email?
At only 53 years old, actress Anne Heche died in 2022 as a result of a car accident. She did not execute a Will before her tragic death. Ms. Heche’s 20-year old son, Homer Laffoon, petitioned the Los Angeles Superior Court to be appointed administrator of his mother’s estate, claiming that he and his 13-year old half-brother, Atlas Tupper, are her only heirs. Homer also petitioned to be appointed to represent his half-brother’s interests in the proceedings. However, Homer’s claim of intestacy was not the only one filed with the Court.
Ms. Heche’s ex-boyfriend, James Tupper, who is also the father of Atlas, objected to Homer’s claims, arguing that Ms. Heche made her wishes known to him via email while they were still dating. Mr. Tupper points to a January 25, 2011 email that Ms. Heche allegedly sent to him and two other individuals an email with the subject line, “WILL.” In relevant part, the 11-year old email read, “My wishes are that all of my assets go to the control of Mr. James Tupper to be used to raise my children and then given to the children.” Through this email, Mr. Tupper asserts that Homer’s claims of intestacy are inaccurate and should be denied. Mr. Tupper also challenges Homer’s capacity and ability to serve as administrator of the Estate, claiming that Homer’s youth, lack of employment, and estrangement from Ms. Heche at the time of her death make him a poor candidate for administrator.
How would this play out closer to home? In New Jersey and Pennsylvania (as in California), an email cannot count as a valid Will because it does not fulfill the statutory formalities required, such as not having witnesses. However, New Jersey and California have adopted the “harmless error rule”, whereby a document may still be treated as if it complied with the law if the proponent of the will can show by clear and convincing evidence that the testator intended writing to constitute his or her Will. It remains to be seen whether California courts will accept email sent over a decade before the decedent’s death as a valid will, however, California’s harmless error statute ensures that this outcome is not foreclosed simply because an email does not meet the statutory formalities generally required of wills.
The Los Angeles Superior Court ultimately named Homer in charge of administering the Estate and as guardian ad litem for Atlas. It also stated that the Estate is to be split 50/50 between Homer and Atlas. Homer presented evidence that the estate is worth approximately $400,000, with another $400,000 expected annually in the form of residuals and royalties.