Heath Ledger, famous for his protrayal of Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005). died January 22, 2008.  He had just finished filming the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, where he played The Joker:  The Clown Prince of Crime. The Harlequin of Hate. The Ace of Knaves.

According to The New York Times:

"Heath Ledger’s will left nothing to his former girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter because it was filed in Australia in 2003 and never updated after they became part of his life, The Associated Press reported. A copy of the will, filed in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, shows that Mr. Ledger, a native of Australia, left everything to his parents and three sisters."

Is this deja vu?  When Anna Nicole Smith died, her Will left everything to her deceased son and made no mention of her baby daughter Danielynn.   

Joann Grossman and Mitchell Gans, in their article, "Heath Ledger’s Estate: Why Daughter Matilda, Who Was Left Nothing in Her Father’s Will, Might Have a Claim to Everything" examines the issues of where Heath Ledger was domiciled, which jurisdiction’s law will govern the distribution of his estate, and whether the tabloid reports about another child fathered many years ealier are true.

Matilda is what the law refers to as a "pretermitted heir" –   a child who was accidentally omitted from her parent’s will.   According to Grossman and Gans, if New York law applies (New York being the place where Ledger was living and where he died) Matilda woudl be entitled to a portion of her father’s estate suince she was born after the execution of his will.

We all seem to take for granted that Matilda is Ledger’s child.  However, to have rights to inherit under  New York law, since Ledger wasn’t married to Michelle Wiliiams (Matilda’s mother), there must be either 1) an adjudication of paternity, 2) a written acknowledgment of paternity, or 3) other "clear and convincing evidence" and the father has "openly and notoriously acknowledged" the child as his own.  Grossman and Gans report that Ledger’s name appears on Matidla’s birth certificate and that he lived with Michelle and Matilda for the first year of her life.

Under New York law, if the testator had no children when the will was executed, the omitted child gets what would have been his or her intestate share of daddy’s etate.  In this case –  that would be the whole thing!    But what about other children?  The tabloids report that Ledger fathered a child in Aurtrailia while he was in high school.

If there is another child, and if Ledger is considered the father under New York law (or maybe under the law of another jursidciton based on a case brought by that child or hir or her mother) then New York law leads to the conclusion that Ledger intended to omit that child, and thus probably intended to omit all children.  That would leave Matilda out in the cold.

What’s the moral of the story?  Keep your will updated!  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking its just a fill-in-the blank form that, once completed, need never be looked at again!  Estate planning really has very little to do with forms.  Ask Matilda.


UPDATE:  Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, the 3 actors who stepped in to complete Heath’s role in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" donated thier earnings from the film to Heath’s daughter Matilda.

Blogging credit to David S. Luber and Gerry W. Beyer.