Don’t Do Me Like That: Tom Petty’s Widow, Daughter in Court Over Control of His Estate

Posted on May 22, 2019 by Amanda DiChello

Two years after rocker Tom Petty's sudden death, tensions between one of his two daughters and his second wife over the future of his estate have come to a head.

Allegations of angry emails, unauthorized decision making, and misrepresentations to the press about who's in charge of the estate have led to delayed projects, increasing animosity among family members who won't back down, and, most recently, litigation.

Petty died in 2017, just one week after finishing a concert tour. In his revocable trust, he named his widow, Dana York Petty, the sole trustee. Unfortunately, some of the rock star's last directives are in dispute.

Petty's widow and his older daughter from his first marriage, Adria Robin Petty, filed dueling petitions on April 2, 2019, in a Los Angeles probate court seeking more control over Petty's music catalog and legacy. And just this last week, Adria and her younger sister, Annakim Violette, filed a civil suit on behalf of Petty Unlimited LLC in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that Dana was attempting to divert business opportunities from Petty Unlimited.

In her probate petition, Dana argues that, as the trust's sole trustee, she has the broad discretion to create a limited liability company to handle Petty's music-related assets. The trust leaves the details of running the company to Dana with one caveat---that his daughters be included "equally" in its management.

Dana is seeking an order to execute the limited liability company's operating agreement to establish a governance structure for making business decisions regarding her late husband's estate. She argues that a manager should be appointed to run the company on a day-to-day basis.  She also wants to require the manager to obtain unanimous consent from her and Petty's two daughters on certain significant business decisions.

With Dana and Adria continually butting heads over the future of Petty's catalog, his widow clearly wants to avoid a situation in which Adria and Annakim can shut her out with a two-to-one majority.

In her own petition, Adria asks the probate court to get the limited liability company up and running by ordering Dana to fund the company with Petty's music-related assets. Adria maintains that her father wanted his widow and two daughters to split control of his artistic estate three ways, and argues that Dana has refused to let Petty's daughters participate in the management of his assets, including the marketing of posthumously released albums.

In their separate suit, Petty's daughters, suing through Petty Unlimited -- the company set up under the provisions of the rock star's will, in which Dana is a manager -- allege that Dana formed a separate entity called Tom Petty Legacy LLC to compete with Petty Unlimited. The complaint alleges that, through Tom Petty Legacy, Dana has been interfering with and usurping the business opportunities to exploit Petty's intellectual property assets that rightfully belong to Petty Unlimited and names specific opportunities and transactions. The suit seeks more than $5 million in restitution, control of all of the assets and the profits generated from them, and an injunction to prevent Dana from further exploiting any of her late husband's assets. It also includes claims of breach of fiduciary duty against Dana individually.

Even though Petty's death was unexpected, he was far more prepared than other celebrities because he had an estate plan. Prince, for example, died intestate in 2016, which led to countless legal squabbles.

But the current dispute between Petty's widow and his two daughters essentially comes down to intent and interpretation of Petty's wishes. According to both petitions, Adria and Annakim "shall be entitled to participate equally" in the management of Petty's music-related assets, but there appears to be a clear difference of opinion as to what Petty intended.

Petty's revocable trust document does not specifically define what Petty meant by "participate equally." One interpretation is that he intended for Petty's two daughters to share 50% of the decision making between them, while Petty's wife would have the other 50%. The other interpretation is that Petty's daughters and his wife would each have an equal say in the decision making.

Petty's personal life wasn't nearly as complicated when he died as other music icons---James Brown married four times, fathered nine legitimate children and at least three illegitimate children, which practically guaranteed the family feuding that has ensued.

But the large amount of wealth and a labyrinth of music rights to be navigated in Petty's estate makes the current infighting between his widow and daughter from a previous marriage unsurprising. As much as Petty did to organize his affairs before his death, one might argue that he left one big loose end by not being specific enough about who gets to control what---and leaving it to the heirs to fight it out in court.

While Petty's widow and daughters currently may not be on the best of terms, asking the probate court to resolve their dispute may be the smartest move they could make. A hearing is scheduled for June, so stayed tuned.