Fights Over Celebrities’ and High-Profile Individuals’ Post-Mortem Rights of Publicity Highlight the Need to Protect and Consider Intangible Assets in Estate and Tax Planning
Nine years after Michael Jackson's death, his estate and the Internal Revenue Service are fighting over the post-mortem value of the name and likeness of the late King of Pop. The dispute has been dragging on in tax court since 2013; a decision isn't expected until mid-2019. Among the disputes over the estate's value is the huge discrepancy in how much each side estimates Jackson's name and likeness are worth. The estate values Jackson's name and likeness at just $2,105, in light of the child molestation accusations that tarnished his image before he died. The IRS counters that the value is closer to $160 million, citing Jackson's long and very successful music career, according to *The Hollywood Reporter*.
When Aretha Franklin died in Detroit on August 16, it was widely reported that she left an estate worth approximately $80 million – and no will. It’s a curious development in the story of a woman whose 60-year career started in her early teens and was known to have a firm grip on her purse strings. The legendary Queen of Soul died at age 76 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, and was survived by four sons. Given the fights that frequently erupt among family members over the estates of celebrities who do actually leave a will behind, Franklin’s decision not to write a will could mean trouble in the future. Or maybe not.
Many pet owners would not hesitate to say they love their animals as much as the people in their lives. But a Pennsylvania court recently made it clear that while pets are not people, they must still pay taxes. A recent decision by the Chester County Orphans’ Court Division in Lesley G. King Estate clarified that Pennsylvania inheritance taxes must be paid on trusts established to care for animals after their owner dies and at what rate. The debate between the estate’s executors and the state turned, in part on use of the word “person” for Pennsylvania inheritance tax purposes.
One of this year’s most anticipated Broadway productions was at risk of being shuttered before it ever opened because of a fierce dispute between producers and the estate of the book’s author on which the play is based. A representative of the estate of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, sued producer Scott Rudin and his production company, Rudinplay Inc., alleging that the stage adaptation authored by Aaron Sorkin violated the licensing agreement Lee signed prior to her death in February 2016.
The John DeLorean estate is in a clash once again with the unaffiliated DeLorean Motor Company (DMC), this time over royalty payments that Universal Pictures (Universal) allegedly directed to DMC instead of to the estate for the right to use the iconic Back to the Future DeLorean DMC-12 on merchandise and advertising material. The suit, filed by DeLorean’s widow, revisits a settlement agreement reached in 2015 between the estate and DMC that divvied up intellectual property rights between the two parties. In the 2015 agreement, DMC received the rights to the DeLorean Motor Company’s name, trademarks, and logo. The estate received the rights to John DeLorean’s name and personal depictions. The 2015 agreement with DMC did not mention the prior royalty deal that John DeLorean entered into with Universal in 1989, which channeled to John DeLorean 5% net receipts from any merchandise and commercial tie-ins that featured the DeLorean time machine.
Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017, but the infamous murderer and cult leader remained frozen in the Kern County morgue until March 2018 as a bizarre dispute over his remains unfolded in court. The coroner’s office determined that a 2002 will presented by Michael Channels, a memorabilia collector and Manson pen pal, was “inherently suspicious.” The office then petitioned the court for direction on who should receive Manson’s remains. A separate court case to determine who will receive Manson’s estate is still underway in Los Angeles County, which also involves Channels’ suspect will.
In order to be a surviving spouse to inherit under the intestate laws (the statutory laws that apply when one dies without a will), a person needs to have been married to the decedent first. You might think this is pretty obvious, but a recent Orphans’ Court case dealt with the issue of what it means to be “married” in Pennsylvania. We’ve all seen the wedding announcements in the newspaper where the couple is married by a friend of the family ordained by an internet-based organization. But, is that legal in Pennsylvania? In some cases, yes; in other cases, no.
A Star with Strings Attached: The Story of Mickey Rooney and Identifying Elder & Power of Attorney Abuse
Mickey Rooney, the Hollywood child star who became an industry legend, appearing in more than 300 films during a career that spanned over 90 years, died allegedly a victim of elder and power of attorney abuse and financial exploitation – his estate having been allegedly wrenched from him by a family member that he had trusted. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence among America’s seniors, and Rooney’s story demonstrates just how dire the consequences can be when the abuse goes unrecognized.
Huguette Clark, the youngest daughter of U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925), a copper magnate, railroad builder, and one of the founders of Las Vegas, inherited one of the greatest fortunes amassed in the Gilded Age. When she died in 2011, at age 104, the reclusive heiress left behind more than $300 million—$25 million of which was eaten up by legal fees because of poor estate planning and an assailable will. Analyzing the facts surrounding this complex estate and the ensuing conflict reveals an array of lessons for all estate practitioners.
When pop superstar Whitney Houston died in 2012 at the age of 48, she left her entire estate to her only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown – who was just 19 years old, leading many to worry that someone so young would not be able to handle the money or the people who would inevitably prey on her for access to the money. Three years later, Houston’s daughter died without a will.
The “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” probably would have been exhausted just hearing about all of the infighting over his will. Eleven years after James Brown’s death, his estate is still a battleground for his heirs and would-be heirs. The infighting over Brown’s fortune may be a study in chaos, but there are some valuable estate-planning lessons to be learned.
Personality rights, also referred to as the right of publicity, protect against anyone who “appropriates the commercial value of a person's identity by using without consent the person’s name, likeness, or other indicia of identity for purposes of trade.” The level of protection provided varies from state to state, making it highly significant where someone dies. Uniform protection under federal law has been discussed, but there is currently no legal framework in place.
Appointing a corporate trustee to administer an estate can be a wise move in situations that call for an experienced, impartial referee, particularly when the estate involves millions of dollars, a large portfolio of assets, and a generous helping of family drama.
Litigation over the late Kirk Kerkorian’s $2 billion estate proves that when a lot of money is at stake, the provisions of a will and prenuptial agreement may be viewed as less than binding. Although this is a California case, it illustrates how the details involved in the execution of a prenuptial agreement can come back to haunt estate administrators.
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