With Prince’s intestate death, estate lawyers see need to educate

June 1, 2016

Fishers estate attorney Susan Hunter was so affected by the death of artist Prince that she blogged about it on her firm’s website. She reminisced about her college days near the peak of his popularity, when she and a friend got the hot tickets to a Prince show at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.

They partied like it was 1999. “In 1984, that seemed like eons away,” she said. “He was my guy. He was like our Elvis.

“The day he died, when I first heard it, I took it a lot harder than I would have expected,” Hunter said. She felt she needed to write something, and soon it became clear that Prince, like so many celebrities and non-celebrities, apparently died without a leaving will.

“Here we go — now the circus starts,” Hunter said. “It’s very, very sad to have his memory tainted like that.”

The apparent intestate death of Prince Rogers Nelson, who left an estate widely reported to be worth up to $300 million, prompted several Indiana lawyers to blog about their connection to his music and also use the opportunity to educate people about what happens when someone dies without a will or estate plan. In a sense, it’s the same old song.

“What I have seen is it ends up being far more costly with extra debts involved, and sometimes painful,” said Lisa Adler of Harrison & Moberly LLP, who has closely followed, written about and tweeted developments in Prince’s estate matter. “Costs and painfulness are consequences of failure to plan.”

Adler said as a fan of Prince, his estate circumstances seem “mystifying” given his reputation of having tight control of his music, business and philanthropy. “It feels very sad his intent isn’t being realized after his death,” she said.

Shannon Frank, a partner at Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn LLP in Evansville, who also wrote about Prince’s estate, said celebrity deaths often involve great wealth and complicated family dynamics. In Prince’s case, he had no children, so the estate likely will be split among closest relatives, a sister and half-siblings, though practically each day has brought new claims.

“The value in talking about his death is to remind people that anyone’s life may unexpectedly be cut short,” Frank said. “Regardless of whether you are a baby boomer or a millennial, everyone should be prepared in order that loved ones are appropriately provided for and charitable intentions fulfilled.”

Frank said it stands to reason that Prince would have consulted attorneys, planners and advisers regularly. “It is likely all of them at some point in time counseled Prince to address his estate planning needs,” she said. “Once a client understands the consequences of doing nothing, including the loss of the right to control who receives assets, the manner in which assets are received, potential for increased inheritance taxes, as well as input as to guardians for minor children, typically they are motivated to move forward.”

Because Prince’s home state of Minnesota taxes large estates up to 16 percent in addition to the federal tax of 40 percent on estates worth more than $5.45 million, heirs will receive only about 44 percent of the value of the estate.

Lawyers said part of their mission of educating people is to highlight Indiana’s sometimes counterintuitive laws concerning intestate death. For instance, if a married spouse with no children dies, the surviving spouse doesn’t inherit the entire estate. The spouse receives 75 percent, while the deceased’s parents inherit 25 percent.

Hunter said she provides free programs and seminars to help people understand how estate planning works and what could happen if they do nothing. She recently counseled a couple in their 80s who had never made a will. “They finished saying, ‘You know what? It didn’t hurt at all,’” she said.

But the reasons people don’t take the time to record their wishes vary from fear of lawyers to simple procrastination. “I would be willing to bet a large percentage of attorneys don’t have their estate plan done,” Hunter said. “We all think we’re invincible. … It takes a little bit of time and a little bit of effort, then it’s done, and you can feel good about that.”

Another aspect of the value of Prince’s estate is the potential worth of his right of publicity. Jonathan Faber, CEO of Luminary Group in Shelbyville, has represented the estates of late celebrities from Babe Ruth to Princess Diana in licensing matters.

The Minnesota Legislature recently stalled a bill that would have recognized the right of publicity in Prince’s home state, but Faber said, “that does not mean there is not a right of publicity” there. He said the right is recognized under common law, and the Minnesota bill would have just placed parameters on the right.

But Faber said the lack of a will makes valuing Prince’s right of publicity complicated. In the case of Michael Jackson, for instance, the IRS sought to value his ROP in the hundreds of millions of dollars, while the estate argued it was only worth a few thousand. “The key is knowing what the decedent’s wishes are,” Faber said. If Prince would have wished his name or likeness never be licensed for commercial purposes after his death, for instance, the right would be worth very little.

Most people don’t have to worry about the right of publicity, but Adler said she’s experienced estates of greater than $1 million in which the deceased was intestate. She’s heard people say it makes them feel unlucky to talk about their inevitable demise. But she tells people no estate is too small for an estate plan. “The consequences (of an intestate death) can be very sad for anyone of any income level,” she said.

Adler and Faber aren’t ready to rule out the possibility of a late discovery of a will executed by Prince, even though a Minnesota judge has appointed Prince’s bank as executor.

“He’s got a huge estate and I’ve got to think this is going to be handled very methodically and very well,” Adler said. “I don’t know if that’s the case … but I don’t think the whole story’s been told yet, and I’m hopeful there’s something there.”

Faber said he wouldn’t be surprised if a will turns up in Prince’s famous Paisley Park vault reputed to contain thousands of hours of unreleased music. “There aren’t too many Prince bootleg releases I haven’t listened to,” Faber said. “Prince even sings about wills in his songs.”•


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