Remember Me Like John Lennon *

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I have been remembering John Lennon today especially, on the anniversary of his death.  Most geezers my age can recall exactly where we were when we learned the heartbreaking news of his murder by the mad gunman, Mark David Chapman – it was on a Monday night, December 8, 1980 around 11 p.m. EST.

Like it was yesterday….

John was 40 when he died.  He died testate, with a sturdy estate plan that we dissect every semester in my Estates, Trusts and Wills classes. Lennon’s will is a superb one for us to study because it is elegantly short and relatively simple to read and yet contains sophisticated planning. After countless classes spent analyzing Lennon’s testamentary clauses, I have decided on:


5. It’s got savvy tax planning.

The draftsman of this will was focused on estate tax avoidance. You can see the tax planning right from the start – in fact,  the first article of the will is the Tax Clause:

FIRST: The expenses of my funeral and the administration of my estate, and all inheritance, estate or succession taxes, including interest and penalties, payable by reason of my death shall be paid out of and charged generally against the principal of my residuary estate without apportionment or proration. My Executor shall not seek contribution or reimbursement for any such payments.

Wow.  Different lawyers prefer different clauses right up front in a will, but I haven’t seen a lot of wills with the tax clause in first place.  In effect, the tax clause says which beneficiary is going to bear the burden of all taxes on the estate.   Almost always, (as in John’s will) the residuary beneficiary  (in John’s case, a trust) bears the taxes.

Article Two contains a lesson in estate tax history and gives me nostalgia pangs for the estate tax law I studied in law school, when the marital deduction was not unlimited. This article is old-timey tax planning aimed at maximizing the use of the marital deduction to ensure that Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, inherited as much as possible outright, with a minimum of estate tax imposed.  The estate tax was robust back in the day – Lennon’s estate would have been subject to a maximum rate of 70% as opposed to the measly 35% our richies pay today when they cannot claim the unlimited marital deduction.

SECOND: Should my wife survive me, I give, devise and bequeath to her absolutely, an amount equal to that portion of my residuary estate, the numerator and denominator of which shall be determined as follows:
1. The numerator shall be an amount equal to one-half (1/2) of my adjusted gross estate less the value of all other property included in my gross estate for Federal Estate Tax purposes and which pass or shall have passed to my wife either under any other provision of this Will or in any manner outside of this Will in such manner as to qualify for and be allowed as a marital deduction. The words “pass”, “have passed”, “marital deduction” and adjusted gross estate” shall have the same meaning as said words have under those provisions of the Untied States Internal Revenue Code applicable to my estate.
2. The denominator shall be an amount representing the value of my residuary estate.

Lennon’s will also had a simultaneous death clause that would kick in if he and Yoko died in a common accident.  Lennon’s lawyer wisely reversed New York’s default simultaneous death law to avoid estate taxes in the event husband and wife perished together:

FOURTH: In the event that my wife and I die under such circumstances that there is not sufficient evidence to determine which of us has predeceased the other, I hereby declare it to be my will that it shall be deemed that I shall have predeceased her and that this, my Will, and any and all of its provisions shall be construed based upon that assumption.

4.  The Pour over. 

Testators who care about their privacy often use a pour over estate plan which employs a short, simple will that makes a disposition of their entire estate to an inter vivos (created during the grantor’s lifetime) trust.  The will is a public document once it has been admitted to probate (after the testator’s death), but in a perfect world, the trust remains a private instrument. Michael Jackson and James Brown (stayed tuned for future posts) used pour overs too.  Here’s John’s residuary clause:

THIRD: I give, devise and bequeath all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, wheresoever situate, to the Trustees under a Trust Agreement dated November 12, 1979, which I signed with my wife YOKO ONO, and ELI GARBER as Trustees, to be added to the trust property and held and distributed in accordance with the terms of that agreement and any amendments made pursuant to its terms before my death.

A few weeks ago, Forbes magazine published a list of the Top-Earning Dead Musicians in 2011, and Lennon was #3 (after Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley – how excellent that we study their wills too!).  According to Forbes, Lennon’s estate earned $12 million in 2011 alone.  Since Yoko is co-trustee of John’s trust, she controls that income as well as the trust principal (I’ve read so many different values placed on Lennon’s estate that I’m only willing to report that it may be somewhere between $400 and $800 million, maybe).  The trust itself remains private – there are no copies on the web or Westlaw.  Yoko may be the sole beneficiary.

Eli Garber, Yoko’s co-trustee, was the Lennons’ accountant.

3.  The In Terrorem clause.

Lennon’s lawyer included this clause to try to prevent contests of John’s estate plan.  It’s a clause that says that if anyone challenges the will or trust (and they lose the contest), they lose their inheritance. Although no-contest clauses are disfavored in some states, New York law honors them, with some exceptions.

EIGHTH: If any legatee or beneficiary under this will or the trust agreement between myself as Grantor and YOKO ONO LENNON and ELI GARBER as Trustees, dated November 12, 1979 shall interpose objections to the probate of this Will, or institute or prosecute or be in any way interested or instrumental in the institution or prosecution of any action or proceeding for the purpose of setting aside or invalidating this Will, then and in each such case, I direct that such legatee or beneficiary shall receive nothing whatsoever under this Will or the aforementioned Trust.

Who did the attorney suspect would cause trouble?  Perhaps Julian Lennon, John’s first son (with his first wife). According to this Youtube television interview Julian had to bring a lawsuit to get a share of John’s estate.  The litigation was protracted and it ended in a secret settlement for an undisclosed amount. A lawsuit means the in terrorem clause did not have the desired effect.  It may have been that Julian had nothing to lose by suing, so the clause had no teeth.

In the interview, Julian clearly dislikes Yoko.  He calls her “very manipulative“. He adds “She knew what she was doing since day one.  She had it all planned“.  He was particularly angry that Yoko had auctioned off a lot of John’s tangible, personal property (including postcards that Julian had sent to John and John’s musical instruments).  Julian bid on the property and he said it was ironic that “I’m buying his stuff back with his money”.  He added that he had “been dealt an interesting hand”.   Julian is correct, of course, but at least he wasn’t born Saif Gaddafi

A bright spot in the Julian interview was that even while Julian was slamming Yoko, he had only very nice things to say about his younger brother, Sean Lennon.  They get along swell and in recent years at least, Julian and Yoko appear to have made peace according to this 2010 article and photo in the Daily Mail.

Sean, Yoko and Julian, 2010

Julian really looks and sounds like his dad.  Gives me the chills.

2.  The Fiduciaries

Click on this cool image to see its source and read more about fiduciaries.

I like how John named successor executors – three different ones in order of preference.

FIFTH: I hereby nominate, constitute and appoint my beloved wife, YOKO ONO, to act as the Executor of this my Last Will and Testament. In the event that my beloved wife YOKO ONO shall predecease me or chooses not to act for any reason, I nominate and appoint ELI GARBER, DAVID WARMFLASH and CHARLES PETTIT, in the order named, to act in her place and stead.

As noted, Eli Garber was the Lennons’ accountant, David Warmflash (who has the greatest name) was one of their lawyers and Charles Pettit remains a mystery to be researched further.  (So far I have verified that Pettit is not currently licensed as an attorney or a CPA in NYS. He doesn’t have a phone number listed in the area and a Westlaw search turned up nothing promising. Nothing panned out on Google either.  I even checked him out on the Social Security Death Index and he didn’t die in New York State, at least.  Mr. Pettit, where are you?)

Lennon also nominated a guardian for his son Sean Lennon, in case Yoko was unable to act.

SIXTH: I nominate, constitute and appoint my wife YOKO ONO, as the Guardian of the person and property of any children of the marriage who may survive me. In the event that she predeceases me, or for any reason she chooses not to act in that capacity, I nominate, constitute and appoint SAM GREEN to act in her place and stead.

Sam Green – Click on photo for source

Sam Green was an art dealer and a wildly successful social climber.  He died last year and although there was only one obituary for him, in a London paper, the New York Times ran a wonderful story about Green a month after he died. You must read this entire article – Green led a charmed life that begs for a screenplay (he was BFF’s with Greta Garbo!). But, if the Times article is true, it is shocking that John would entrust his beloved younger son Sean to Sam Green.   The Times does not paint a pretty portrait of Green, calling him a “social adventurer, a collector of people who approached the wealthy and famous with the ardor of a lepidopterist wielding a butterfly net.” (Man, isn’t that great writing?) The article quotes people who knew him saying things like:

–  “At the very least, Sam Green was a fabulist, an unabashed poseur blessed with good looks, a natural flair for storytelling, a knack for self-promotion and a markedly elastic relationship to the truth.”

– “the last of the con men”

– “Sam Green could be so much to so many, handsome and charming, gay and straight, serious and frivolous, anything you wanted him to be”.

– “He had a glib, offhand way of making everything seem like a lark. Like any high-end operator, he’d claim credit for things he didn’t do and disclaim things he did, but in the end he was somebody: one of the most seminal peripheral figures of our time.”

According to the Times, Sam Green and Yoko began a “long and ultimately disastrous relationship”  in 1976, three years before John executed his will.   To be fair, John was not faithful to Yoko either, but dang, this Sam Green sounds like a sociopath!  What was John thinking?

1.  My Beloved Wife

Despite the infidelity John seemed to really love his wife.  He loved her so much he adopted her last name!  How common is that in the world?  Do you know any other men who have done that?  Check out the title and preamble to John’s Last Will and Testament.

I, JOHN WINSTON ONO LENNON, a resident of the County of New York, State of New York, which I declare to be my domicile do hereby make, publish and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament, hereby revoking all other Wills, Codicils and Testamentary dispositions by me at any time heretofore made.

Not only did John take Yoko’s name, but he effectively left her his entire estate.  Every time we read Article Five in class I smile when I get to “my beloved wife, YOKO ONO” because in this case, I think the words are surely true.

I understand that many believe that Yoko was some miraculously powerful Svengali who brainwashed/hypnotized/mesmerized/bewitched/glamoured/entranced/zombified/duressed/unduly influenced Lennon to obey her every command.  As much as I feel for Julian (and I do so much),  Yoko was John’s wife of more than ten years, the mother of one of his kids and his artistic collaborator.  He signed what most people do – an ” I Love You Will” (leaving everything to the surviving spouse) and there is nothing terribly suspicious about that.

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Last summer I think perhaps I gained an inkling of why John was so smitten with Yoko. I hope you will read my next post, My Beloved Wife Yoko Ono, for more on her.

*Thank you to my student Mr. SorryIForgotYourName from last semester’s day class for the title of this piece.   Mr. Sifyn was a Lil Wayne/Rick Ross fan and he steered me to their song John, which includes the lyrics “If I die today, remember me like John Lennon, Buried in Louie, I’m talking all brown linen”.   Not Donsky’s cuppa,  I much prefer Imagine.

By the way, Mr. Sifyn also did some research and reported to the class that John Lennon was cremated and not buried after all.  Nice work!


1 Response to “Remember Me Like John Lennon *”

  1. 1 Bill Lucado October 5, 2012 at 2:32 am

    To David Warmflash from Bill Lucado
    Great article! Thank you for the time with Pentacles. I am dealing with stage 4 cancer. Keep up the great work!
    With much Love & Peace to you Yoko & the family!

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