The other day I watched a very interesting program on the life and legacy of Hank Williams. As you may know, Hank Williams was one of the most influential country music stars of all time with hits, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Hey Good Lookin'” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” that have been covered by musicians of many various genres. What you may not know, and what I found fascinating, is that when Williams died at the young age of 29 without an estate plan, a chain of event was put into motion that would forever change the life of his unborn daughter and keep his multimillion-dollar estate stuck in the courts for years.
While Williams achieved great success in his lifetime, both professionally and financially, his personal life was turbulent and riddled by addiction. In 1952 divorced his first wife and moved in with his mother, as his drug problems continued to escalate. During this period Williams had a brief relationship with a woman named Bobbie Jett which resulted in her becoming pregnant. Nevertheless, Williams continued to tour and only months later married his second wife, Billie Jean Eshlimar.
On January 1, 1953, Williams was scheduled to perform at a New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio, but he was unable to fly because of inclement weather. Instead, he hired a college student to drive him there. Hours later, when the car pulled into a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, Williams was found dead in the back seat, the result of a mixture of alcohol and drugs.
Only five days later Bobbie Jett gave birth to a little girl; Hank Williams’ daughter. And despite his substance abuse issues, Williams apparently had no intention of being a dead-beat dad to this child, later to be named Jett Williams. In fact, months earlier he had signed a pre-birth custody agreement that gave him full custody of his daughter. Now that he was gone, the child went to live with Williams’ mother, who legally adopted the girl in 1954. However, when she died in 1955 the young girl was made a ward of the state of Alabama and subsequently adopted by new parents who renamed her.
The child grew up knowing she was adopted but not knowing who her real parents were. After hearing numerous rumors suggesting she might be related to Williams, the girl, now a young woman, went to great lengths to discover her origins, often facing defeat as the records were under seal. It was not until the early 1980s that she finally learned who her biological parents were and discovered that Williams had executed the pre-birth custody agreement. Even with this proof she was forced to go to extreme lengths to prove the relationship and be recognized as Williams’ daughter. In 1984 she hired an investigative attorney (who she later married) who was successful in accessing her sealed records to prove her as the daughter of Hank Williams. But even then her fight continued as she was slow to be accepted by Williams’ other children and was denied any compensation from Williams’ vast estate.
Because Williams died without a will, Jett Williams had to take her case to the courts again. In 1985 the Alabama State Court ruled that she was the daughter of Hank Williams and in 1987 the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that she was entitled to her half-share in the Williams estate. Williams’ other child, the equally famous Hank Williams Jr., appealed the case in federal court but the ruling stood when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1990.
After six years and many thousands of dollars in legal fees, Jett was finally treated as a natural child and rightful heir of Hank Williams. Like father like daughter, Jett now performs as a country musician.
While this case is certainly unique due to the celebrity and fortunes involved, it does highlight a simple fact that I often tell clients: if you have children, no matter how young you are, you need to have a basic estate plan including a valid will. Even if you don’t have Williams’ million-dollar fortune, a will provides you with the ability to designate a guardian for your child and provide for their upbringing if you are not there to do so yourself. Failing to plan ahead for your child can only add to the devastating effects of a family tragedy. If you don’t already have a will, contact a Massachusetts estate planning attorney today to get started protecting your family.