Alzheimer’s Disease Claims the Life of Actor, Comedian and Philanthropist Gene Wilder

Fans of Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Willy Wonka were saddened by the death of Gene Wilder. Unlike others who die from Alzheimer’s disease, the comedian’s death was attributable entirely to this deadly disease. The fact is that Alzheimer’s disease is the real cause of death of millions of people, causing a slow death of the brain until the body succumbs, most often to contributing conditions such as pneumonia, sepsis, kidney failure or heart disease. Wilder’s family called the disease an “illness-pirate.” Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, one out of three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia.

An initial diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease rarely results in an immediate determination that the individual lacks mental capacity. All indications are that, shortly after diagnosis of the illness, Wilder met with estate planning attorneys and other financial advisors who were not only familiar with planning for death, but also with planning for incapacity. It appears that plans were put in place to manage his financial affairs, most likely by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, and his trusted and devoted nephew, Jordon Walker-Pearlman. Unlike celebrities such as Brooke Astor, Marlon Brando, Peter Falk, Etta James, and Casey Kasem, there has been no battle over Wilder’s assets, during life or after his death. This may have been in part because he had no natural children and a small family. But the fact he planned early and involved family in the process also may have also contributed to the positive results. Plans for incapacity planning generally involve powers of attorney and living trusts. Such planning also can involve complicated business succession planning in cases where business assets are involved. The comedian’s estate plan almost certainly included provisions for protecting the value of his public image and capturing the future wealth that will be derived from the resurgent interest in his many movies, books, and Broadway scripts.

In Wilder’s case, his planning almost certainly involved philanthropic planning to continue the legacy of his third wife, Gilda Radner, who died from undiagnosed ovarian cancer. After her untimely death, Wilder worked hard to promote cancer awareness and lobbied Congress for its support. He was instrumental in co-founding Gilda’s Club and founding the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. James Schaffer wrote of Wilder’s efforts:

In our world of philanthropy, people with means sometimes seek to burnish their legacy with gifts that etch their names in granite. Wilder etched his name in our hearts and minds by his wonderful talent and his generous and principled actions. . . . For those fighting cancer and their family and friends, Wilder is the beloved benefactor and advocate whose Gilda Club helps them believe that love will see them through whatever may come.

Much of what is detailed above is speculation because the details of Wilder’s estate plan are not publicly known. He preferred to keep the diagnosis of his disease private while he was alive, but he instructed his family to make it public after his death. The lack of a probate proceeding after death indicates that Wilder likely employed the use of a living trust in his planning process. A properly drafted and funded living trust can keep your personal and financial affairs out of court and can keep the extent of your wealth private. The extent of Wilder’s wealth is unknown, but speculated to exceed $20 million. While the details of Wilder’s estate plan are not known, the current publicity of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease serves as a wake-up call for planning during the early stages of disease for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairment. Planning while the person still has mental capacity and can still make legally binding decisions can go a long way in simplifying the management of financial affairs during life and minimizing the possibility of estate battles and family conflict after death. If a conflict is anticipated, evidence that the senior has capacity and is free from undue influence can be obtained in case it will be needed down the road.

Our firm is experienced in the many forms of disability planning and estate planning for persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. We can also assist for planning for the long-term care of a loved one with disabilities. As a member of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, our firm is kept up-to-date with information regarding financial and estate planning, special needs and disability planning and business succession strategies. We also have information about and can assist with charitable planning for those looking to benefit society in addition to their families. You can get more information about a complimentary review of long-term care for your clients by calling our office.

Written By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys