In Whitney Houston’s death, lessons about life planning

Michelle Singletary
Columnist February 14, 2012

Like so many others, I was stunned to hear about Whitney Houston’s death at age 48. You just can’t overlook the pleasure Houston’s music brought into the lives of so many. Several of her songs could immediately make me tear up with joy.

Every time I hear her sing “The Greatest Love of All” and “I Will Always Love You,” I think of two of my greatest loves, my children and my husband.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

However she died, I hope that we’ll focus on that part of her legacy. I also hope a few takeaways from Houston’s death will serve to help others avoid her fate.

For one thing, how could someone with so much talent, success and wealth have been so unhappy? She seemingly had it all.

But her life and her internal battles that often led to her admitted drug use are yet another example that fame and fortune aren’t an automatic pass to contentment.

Yet how many times have you wished you could be in the brand-name shoes of a celebrity, earning millions, living the high life? How many times have you dreamed that more money would solve your problems?

As I think of Houston, I wonder what happens next. What financial legacy did she leave? Did she save enough or put money away to help the less fortunate? Will her estate be plagued by lawsuits like so many other celebrity estates?

I hope that when things get settled, Houston won’t have left behind confusion, as so many celebrities have done. I hope she put her affairs in order, making it easier for her only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown, to mourn without worrying about money.

When we see celebrities who had financial means waste the money or fail to handle their money well, it provides high-profile reminders of how important it is to have a good financial and estate plan. Privately, many of us have seen the financial wreckage people leave behind. We’ve been witness to or participated in family feuds because a relative’s death left a mess that had to be settled in court.

When the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, died in 2006, he left an estate in debt and relatives fighting over his money. Some of Brown’s belongings were auctioned for $850,000 to help pay his debts.

The fighting over money started even before he was buried. One of the problems was that Brown hadn’t updated his will to reflect changes in his life, including the birth of a son, James Brown II. Things got so bad that the attorney general for South Carolina got involved to help broker a settlement. Three years after Brown’s death, a South Carolina judge approved an agreement that would divide Brown’s money among a charitable trust, his widow and youngest son, and his adult children. Despite the settlement and millions in attorneys’ fees, however, the legal battles continue.

When Jimi Hendrix died, he didn’t leave a will. Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who wrote “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, died in 2004 without a will. Larsson died before his books became worldwide best-sellers. Without a will, his girlfriend of 30 years was left with nothing. Larsson’s brother and father inherited everything.

Before Houston died, there were reports of her having financial trouble. Despite having an estimated $100 million record deal, two of her homes, one in Georgia and another in New Jersey, were at one point slated for foreclosure. In a 2002 interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Houston tried to avoid talking about a lawsuit her father filed against her for $100 million. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed after her father died.

“They will never get $100 million out of me,” Houston said in the interview. “I know that.”

Houston went on to say, “The bad part about it is that it’s about money . . .. That’s, that hurts more than anything.”

As you mourn Houston’s death, think about what you can learn from it. Remember that money can’t buy happiness; ask yourself if your estate is in order or if you are putting money ahead of your relationship with family.

In that interview, Sawyer asked: “Ten years from now, give me the perfect life for Whitney Houston.”

A decade later, Houston’s response and Sawyer’s follow-up observation are pretty haunting.

Houston said she saw herself “retired. Sitting, looking at my daughter grow up, become a great woman of God, grandchildren.”

Sawyer reflected: “And perhaps, some measure of peace for Whitney Houston, a woman whose ethereal talent is matched only by the uncertainties of her all-too-human life.”

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@
washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. For more Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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