Mercy Hall and Adam Lazar, Myers Urbatsch
Bobbi Kristina Brown, the only daughter of singers Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, has been in a medically-induced coma since January 31, 2015, when she was found face down in a bathtub of her home in Roswell, Georgia. Since then, Bobbi has remained in a vegetative state while the Brown and Houston families fight over the future of her diminishing heath and estimated $20 million fortune. Although this sad drama is being carried out in Georgia, what would have happened if Bobbi lived in California instead?
While not a simple process in California, father Bobby Brown would most likely gain control of his daughter’s health care. Under California law, Bobbi Kristina would be presumed to have the capacity to make health care and financial decisions. (Prob. Code §§ 810 and 4657.) To care for Bobbi while in a coma, her family would have a choice of either establishing a conservatorship of the person (Prob C. § 1800 et seq.) or exercising either a durable power of attorney or advance health care directive. (Prob. C. §§ 4000 and 4600 et seq.) As a conservatorship imposes significant limitations on how a person may act, Brown’s family would have to prove why a less intrusive alternative, such as power of attorney, was not possible. (Prob. C. § 1821(a)(3).) Unfortunately, a power of attorney or health care directive requires capacity of the person making the contract (Prob. C. §§ 4120, 4609), and it has not been reported that Bobbi Kristina created either document before going into a coma. As a result, the family would be forced to seek a conservatorship, which requires a judicial determination of lack of capacity under the Due Process in Competence Determinations Act (DPCDA) (Prob C §§810–813); capacity will be determined based on Bobbi’s lack of mental function. (Prob. C. § 811.)
Under a conservatorship of the person, the Brown’s family would then have the “care, custody and control” of Bobbi Kristina. (Prob. C. §§2351–2352). However, Bobbi would still be presumed to have the capacity to make medical decisions (Prob C §2354) unless the conservator is also granted exclusive medical powers because Bobbi lacks the capacity to give informed consent to any form of health care. (Prob. C. §2355.) Bobbi had no children and her mother has died, so father Bobby Brown would have priority to be named as Bobbi’s conservator. (Prob. C. § 1812.) That is, of course, unless Bobbi was actually married, as discussed below.
It appears that much of Bobbi Kristina’s assets are inherited from her mother and held in a trust for her benefit. Any assets held in the trust would be governed by the terms of the trust and managed by a trustee.
Bobbi Kristina’s family would need either a power of attorney for finances or a conservatorship of the estate to manage any assets not held in the trust and to manage her other financial affairs such as bill paying and filing taxes. As explained above, however, capacity is required to enter into a power of attorney for finances (Prob. C. § 4120), so a conservatorship would once again be the Browns’ only option. Under a conservatorship of the estate, as with the conservatorship of the person, Bobby Brown will effectively gain control over Bobbi’s finances. (Prob. C. §§1870, 1872.)
Who Stands to Get What?
Under Whitney Houston’s will, the balance of Whitney’s estate passed to a testamentary trust established for the benefit of Bobbi Kristina. Distribution of the assets in trust are governed by the terms of the trust. Under the terms of the trust, Bobbi Kristina inherited one tenth of the principal when she turned 21; she is due to receive a further sixth of the estate when she turns 25 and the balance of the estate when she turns 30. However, if Bobbi Kristina dies before receiving some portion of the trust funds, the trust specifies that the balance is to be split equally between Whitney’s mother, father, husband, and two brothers. Under California law, a divorce automatically disinherits the spouse in a testamentary instrument (Prob. C. § 5600), so Bobby Brown cannot benefit because he was not married to Whitney when she died.
The trust terms do not apply to the one- tenth of Whitney’s estate that Bobbi Kristina already inherited or to any other assets she owned in her name. If she dies intestate, these assets will pass to Bobbi Kristina’s heirs at law. This is likely her father Bobby Brown, unless it turns out that Bobbi Kristina was legally married to her long-term boyfriend Nick Gordon.
If Bobbi Kristina is married, as some news reports suggest, the above analysis becomes more complicated. Bobbi Kristina’s engagement was all over the tabloids when it occurred, but Bobby Brown objected from the get-go and his lawyer now insists that the two never legally tied the knot.
If Bobbi Kristina was legally married, her father may attempt to challenge the marriage on the basis that his daughter was not legally competent to do so, citing drug abuse charges and claims of undue influence.
If Bobbi Kristina was married to Nick Gordon, then inheritance would depend on whether an asset was characterized as community property or separate property. Community property is property acquired during marriage other than property acquired by devise, inheritance, or gift, (Fam. C. §§760, 770, 803; Prob. C. §28). Separate property is property acquired before the marriage or by devise, inheritance, or gift (Fam. C. §770). If married, Nick Gordon would inherit one-half of Bobbi Kristina’s share of the community property (effectively he would own three-fourths of the community property since he already owns his one-half) and he would inherit one-half of any separate property (the one-tenth of Bobbi Kristina’s inheritance from Whitney) while Bobby Brown would inherit the remaining assets.
Nick Gordon is now under investigation for the death of Bobbi Kristina. If Nick is found to have murdered Bobbi Kristina, that could prevent Nick Gordon from inheriting any of the assets. (Prob. C. § 250.)
About the authors:
Mercy Hall and Adam Lazar are attorneys with the LRIS Probate firm Myers Urbatsch.
BASF’s SF-Marin Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) is available for all your legal needs. If you need a referral to an attorney call (415) 989-1616. Are you an attorney interested in joining this prestigious program? Call (415) 477-2374.