Estate-planning lessons from the Magic Kingdom

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Walt Disney was the creative genius and driving force behind the Disney entertainment empire. He was in his prime in the early 1960s.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/07/2009 (4772 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Walt Disney was the creative genius and driving force behind the Disney entertainment empire. He was in his prime in the early 1960s.

His world came screeching to a halt when an X-ray revealed a spot on his lung on Nov. 2, 1966. It proved to be cancer, and the lung was removed four days later. He was able to leave hospital and return to work for a few days, but died of complications after five weeks on Dec. 15, 1966.

Many people believe that Walt Disney’s body was frozen in liquid nitrogen shortly after death and put in storage. Referred to as “cryonic suspension,” the process builds on the hope that advances in medical science will allow the body to be repaired and for the person to be thawed and brought back to life in the future.

Many of those who say that Walt Disney is frozen believe that his body is being stored in a secret facility at Disneyland, deep underground — reputedly beneath the current location of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme area.

What really happened? The official government death certificate indicates that his body was cremated two days after his death. Walt’s family paid $40,000 for a plot and marker. You can visit his grave at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif.

His daughter, Diane, went on record six years after the death of her father, saying, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had even heard about cryogenics.”

The story that Walt Disney is frozen appears to be an urban myth or, speaking his language, just plain goofy.

What did his last will and testament do with his substantial wealth? One-half went to charity. The other half was held in a family trust for the protection and support of his wife, Lillian, and his two daughters, Sharon and Diane.

Ultimately, the money in the family trust was distributed to his grandchildren. The trust saved the family millions of dollars in U.S. estate taxes.

People who freeze themselves need to make special arrangements to keep their wealth intact. If you research “cryonics” on the Internet and then rummage around for long enough, you can find a link to websites for “perpetual trusts.”

A perpetual trust is one that can exist for as long as it serves its purpose. In theory, it can go on forever. A rich person who wants to have their body frozen would be wise to set aside a chunk of their wealth to be kept intact for their future use after reanimation.

Walt Disney’s will did not set up a perpetual trust. No mention was made of reanimation or subterranean burial chambers. If Walt Disney had been frozen, he would have died rich and faced the prospect of waking up as a pauper.

Perpetual trusts are rare. There are some more pedestrian reasons to set them up.

If your family lives in the United States, and the wealth in question is substantial, a perpetual trust may make sense. Without protection, U.S. estate taxes can gouge up to 45 per cent of the family wealth, and do that over and over again as each generation dies. Avoiding that for several generations is huge.

Perpetual trusts are also set up for non-tax reasons. Most fortunes disappear. The parents build them, then the children and grandchildren gradually fritter them away. The great-grandchildren end up carrying lunch buckets with the rest of us.

Instead, a family can place some of the wealth in a perpetual trust. The trust is intended to guarantee the security and comfort of the family over the generations into the indefinite future. This only works in jurisdictions, like Manitoba, where it is legal to establish a perpetual trust. There are well-heeled Canadian families who are doing this.

As to the viability of cryonics, the sleeping generation of frozen millionaires might be overly optimistic. The freezing process causes damage to the brain. That damage includes small tears, ice holes and widespread deterioration of brain cells. Think “freezer burn.”

All of that would have to be fixed by doctors before they tackle fixing the cause of death. No matter how far medical science progresses, many doctors believe it won’t progress that far.

Next month’s column: Elvis Presley

John E. S. Poyser is a lawyer with the Wealth and Estate Law Group at the Winnipeg firm Inkster, Christie, Hughes LLP. Contact him at (204) 947-6801 or jpoyser@inksterchristie.ca.

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