Co-written by Camren Williams, a 2015 Summer Intern at Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter and Ohio State University student-athlete (football) pursuing a career in Sports Law.

When a group of intruders shot Washington Redskins All-Pro safety Sean Taylor after breaking into his home in 2007, Taylor died, leaving behind his longtime girlfriend, a daughter and many other family members. Making a heartbreaking situation even more devastating was the fact that Taylor died without an estate plan. Because he had no estate plan, everything in his estate, worth nearly $5.8M, went into a court-ordered trust for the benefit of his daughter. 

While on the surface this seems like a positive outcome, it is likely not exactly what Taylor would have wanted because, during his lifetime, Taylor provided for many other family members, as well. As a result of the court’s decision, Taylor’s mother was forced out of her home and lost many of her belongings because Taylor was making the payments and his mother couldn’t afford them on her substitute teacher salary after his death. Similar situations took place with other family members who could no longer afford to live the life Taylor provided for them.

Youth is incredible because you think you’re invincible. This mindset is common with most young adults, but especially among professional athletes. In the world of professional sports, athletes’ ability to attain celebrity status at such a young age creates a mindset focused on professional successes, often at the expense of personal protection. With a seemingly insurmountable amount of money, praise and power, many athletes overlook some simple ways to protect the assets they’ve amassed so early in their lives.

Estate planning is the process of drafting documents that set forth what you want to have happen with your possessions when you die. Understanding that most people don’t want to discuss their own mortality, having a plan in place ensures that your desires are met in case of your untimely death; this is a necessity for professional athletes because there is so much at stake.

Athletes today must learn from Sean Taylor’s situation and take the first step in protecting themselves and their loved ones. There are five common estate planning documents that every athlete should have:

  • Last Will + Testament – this document outlines how property is to be distributed upon death. It also identifies the person to be appointed to make such distributions and names the person(s) who will serve as a guardian to any surviving minor children. This is the most basic document that every person should have to communicate their wishes at death.
  • Living Will – this document specifies what end-of-life actions should be taken if you become permanently unconscious or terminally ill with no hope of recovery and cannot make those decisions yourself. This gives you the opportunity to voice your wishes regarding whether or not life support should be terminated if you are in a persistent vegetative state with no higher brain function.
  • Health Care Power of Attorney – this document authorizes the individual who will make health care decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated and cannot make them yourself. This person will make all decisions regarding medical treatments, selection of medical facilities and medical team, have access to all your medical records and communicate with doctors and hospitals when you are not able to do so yourself.
  • Financial Power of Attorney – this document authorizes someone else to make financial decisions concerning your property and money on your behalf. This authority can be effective when you are incapacitated during your lifetime (i.e., if you are in a coma) or for limited purposes when you have capacity but are otherwise unavailable to act yourself (i.e., if you are out-of-state during the season and unavailable to attend to financial decisions).
  • Revocable Trust – this document is an agreement that allows you to direct lifetime and after-death management and distribution of your property and money. This document gives you the greatest amount of flexibility to provide for your loved ones by allowing you to control the amount and timing of distributions. This is particularly important if you have any minor children or other individuals that you want to support after your death. You can appoint trusted advisors to manage and monitor the assets to ensure your goals for those loved ones are being met. A Revocable Trust also maintains your privacy with regard to your asset holdings, provides you with potential tax benefits and creditor protections for your loved ones.

Another complicated untimely death of a professional athlete occurred in 2012 when Javon Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, killed his girlfriend (who was also the mother of his child), Kasandra Perkins, before killing himself. Since neither Belcher nor Perkins had estate planning documents in place, a complex custody battle ensued over their newly orphaned daughter, Zoey. The custody battle over little Zoey pitted Belcher’s mother against Perkins’s first cousin. Ultimately, the court gave Perkins’s cousin permanent custody of Zoey. The court also ordered all of Belcher’s assets, which totaled more than $1 million, be placed in trust to raise Zoey. Here, again, is another example of a family that was inadvertently left with nothing. Without a Last Will and Testament, neither Belcher nor Perkins were able to express their preference concerning the person they wanted to raise their daughter or how her money should be managed. Furthermore, they did not have an opportunity to communicate whether they wanted their assets distributed to anyone other than Zoey. If Belcher had a documented estate plan, it would have provided guidance as to the guardianship of Zoey and could have directed certain assets to his family, while also providing for his daughter.

One of the first things athletes say they want to do once they get drafted is to provide for the people who raised them. Spending just a little bit of time and money to establish a proper estate plan can go a long way in ensuring that these same people are provided for and taken care of in times of tragedy and untimely death. A proper estate plan can also ensure you are taken care of in the event of a disability. Receiving proper guidance and advice leads to a tailored estate plan that establishes an accurate blueprint and clearly reflects the athlete’s most important wishes.