Estate Planning Corner: Prince Has Left the Building, But Did He Leave a Will?

John O’Grady, O’Grady Law Group

Prince_at_Coachella-2When inimitable superstar Prince died in April at the age of 57, he left behind millions of grieving fans and a majestic artistic legacy. But it’s still unknown whether he left a will indicating who inherits his estimated $250 million estate – and (more importantly) licensing rights to his name, image and music, which are currently worth an additional $300 to $500 million.

A prolific touring musician who released 39 studio albums in as many years (and is rumored to have produced enough songs to fill about 25 more albums), perhaps Prince’s intense focus on musical creativity led him to absentmindedly neglect prosaic legal matters before dying so unexpectedly. But he was also known to mistrust professional money managers, and reportedly relied on young and inexperienced fashion models as key financial advisors. If that’s the case, it seems plausible that Prince never prepared any estate planning documents.

To be fair, it will take several months to determine whether Prince actually had a will. He left behind no spouse or children, and both of his parents are deceased. Prince was estranged until recently from his only living sibling (sister, Tyka Nelson), so it’s possible she’s unaware of any legal arrangements her brother may have made over the years. Absent a will, Nelson and her five half-siblings stand to inherit Prince’s entire estate equally under Minnesota law. But now the search is on for any estate documents Prince may have left – and any that are found would be legally binding no matter when they were written. Meanwhile, Nelson has petitioned to appoint Bremer Trust as special administrator of her brother’s estate.

Prince’s business empire was vast and complex, so his will (if any) may still possibly be found. That’s what happened after Michael Jackson died, for example, even though his family didn’t initially know he’d written a will. But the current lack of a will leaves Prince’s estate vulnerable to years of legal infighting among his potential heirs. These could potentially include real or pretend progeny demanding paternity tests, as well as those claiming to be descended from biological relatives, living or dead.

But paternity suits and other private details will become very public even if a will does surface, unless Prince also created a living trust. This best-case scenario would hide the personal affairs of this notably private public figure from the public eye while protecting his estate from litigation.

Prince’s apparent lack of planning means that the U.S. government will get more than $100 million in estate taxes when his estate tax return is filed. With proper planning he could have instead qualified for the estate tax charitable deduction by leaving large sums to his beloved Jehovah’s Witness Church and other favorite charities.

Prince famously championed musicians’ rights to control their music, and even likened record contracts to slavery. Prince also fought to keep his music off YouTube and streaming services while signing with Jay Z’s Tidal venture in pursuit of artistic and financial autonomy. So it seems out-of-character for him to not legally protect the future use of his iconic music and image in the event of his untimely death. One is left to wonder: if the Purple One could do it all over again, would he realize that with great talent (and wealth) comes great responsibility, and therefore choose to protect his legacy with ironclad legal documentation? Of course, that remains pure speculation. But one thing is certain: failing to learn from Prince’s apparent mistakes can leave loved ones with a highly complicated mess while they’re grieving.

So inspire your clients to work with an estate planning lawyer – and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their affairs are in order.

About the author:

John O’Grady leads a full service estate and trust law firm in San Francisco.  He served as the 2012 Chair of BASF’s Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Section His practice includes Estate Planning & Administration, Probate & Trust Litigation, Collaborative Practice, Mediation, Conflict Coaching, Elder Law & Taxation.