COMMENTARY:  Will Michael Jackson’s Estate Serve as Another Example of Inadequate Planning?

By Anthony Pallone, Meena Saini and Karen Best

July 14, 2009

The best there ever was and the best there ever will be cannot begin to describe the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson. For over three decades, Michael Jackson redefined the meaning of the word superstar. He was not just a talented singer and performer, but he was also a humanitarian. Since his passing on June 25, the fact that he was an accomplished multi-generational artist has been overshadowed by his unconventional lifestyle and his highly publicized legal battles.
Last Will
Additionally, the circumstances surrounding his untimely death have come under public scrutiny. Allegations have been circulating of the pop star’s abuse of prescription medication, and unconfirmed reports state that Jackson was injected with a shot of Demerol one hour before suffering cardiac arrest. In the days after his death, the media focused on Jackson’s live-in cardiologist in the hopes that he would be able to provide further details leading up to the 911 call.  Also, questions surround the physical examination in which Jackson received a clean bill of health.

Michael Jackson grossed nearly $1 billion over his 40-year career; however, his exorbitant spending, eccentric lifestyle and legal issues have all resulted in creditors claims that could reach as much as $400 million or more. Jackson’s largest asset is his 50 percent share in the Sony/ATV music catalogue, potentially valued at $2 billion and certain to be the target of many creditors. The Wall Street Journal reported that Jackson’s will divided his estate between his three children, his mother and various charities. His mother, Catherine Jackson, recently went to court claiming the last will, made in 2002 and appointing attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain as executors, was invalid. The court held the will was legally binding.

One of the next chapters in the courtroom saga will be the custody of Jackson’s three children. In the will, he requested his mother be appointed guardian. He also stipulated that if Catherine Jackson was unable to care for the children, then singer Diana Ross would obtain guardianship. This request is expected to be contested. Apparently, Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the biological mother of his first two children, never legally gave up her parental rights. The mother of the third child is unknown. It is speculated that Rowe would have financial motivation to seek custody. She was excluded from Jackson’s will, but if she became the children’s legal guardian, she would then acquire control of their inheritance.

Jackson is not the first celebrity to be the subject of posthumous litigation. In 2007, the death of former playboy bunny and Guess model Anna Nicole Smith resulted in numerous legal battles, some of which are still ongoing. Prior to her death from an overdose of prescription medication, Smith gained notoriety as the 20-something-year-old wife of 80-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall. When Marshall died, she was named as one of the heirs in his will. Marshall’s son contested her portion of the estate until his death. Smith was awarded $88 million from J. Howard Marshall’s estate by a Santa Ana judge. At one time, Smith was represented by attorney Lenard Leeds of the law firm of Leeds, Morelli, & Brown, P.C. in her legal battle with Marshall’s son over her late husband’s estate distribution. Smith’s estate is currently attempting to collect on the award. Further complicating matters is the fact that Smith’s last will and testament was not updated to provide for the daughter she gave birth to months before her death.

In light of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson’s estate and the potential legal battles, one must ask whether he could have done better estate planning. The area of wills, trusts and estates can be complicated. The ultimate goal is to have one’s wishes followed after death. As of now, no further details of the content in Jackson’s will have been released. This has the potential to be another unfortunate celebrity illustration of the repercussions of failing to accurately plan ahead for the unknown future.

Karen Best, Anthony Pallone and Meena Saini are students at Hofstra University Law School. They are currently interning at the Long Island, NY law firm of Leeds, Morelli and Brown, PC.