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Even Prince needed a will

By Nathan Vinson, Attorney
English, Lucas, Priest and Owsley, LLP

will

Prince performing in concert in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Bob Young.

News reports since Prince’s death have indicated he died intestate – which means without a will. It’s hard to imagine someone who had complex dealings with the music world and a sizable fortune not having this very basic legal document.

You’re talking about a guy who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in a contract dispute with Warner Brothers (finally settled in 2014) and put out albums under the symbol name – and never seemed to lose credibility or popularity because of it. His cool factor really has nothing to do with legal issues. As a fellow musician, I just stand in awe of anyone who has such a long, productive career and had such a strong fan base that lasted decades.

Think of the legality of changing your name to a symbol and continuing to produce records. It probably gave his business and legal advisors some heartburn. Lawyers were likely involved in many aspects of his musical career, determining usage rights, negotiating record deals, negotiating with booking agents for venues and many, many other things. He had employees certainly and probably more than one business entity. It was a complex life.

Yet, there was no will.  There’s some psychology involved in creating a will that you have to acknowledge: you have to admit you’re going to die. Celebrities, particularly musicians, may feel invincible. He was relatively young, too, at 57, and as far as news reports have indicated, wasn’t suffering from a potentially fatal illness. If you’re 57 and have cancer or a heart condition, you might accept that death may come for you. If you’re 57 and healthy, it’s not a very comfortable thought. You may think you have more time.

You can get a sneak peek at what is likely to happen to Prince’s estate by looking at Michael Jackson’s estate battle. The biggest argument in court is over the valuation of his public image. His estate and the IRS have very different views on this. His estate has insisted his public image was nearly worthless at the time of his death due to the child molestation allegations against him and the very odd persona he had created. He had fallen far from the height of his popularity in the 1980s. The IRS, though, doesn’t agree, placing a much higher value on his public image than his estate. The estate’s vested interest is in keeping that value low so they pay less in taxes on the estate.

In Prince’s case, there is property (his Paisley Park complex in Minnesota), his catalog of music, his catalog of never-released music, the rights to his music and his public image. His latest tour had boosted him into the public eye again and re-established his place as one of the most popular artists of all time. Unlike Jackson, he didn’t fall from grace in the eyes of the public. Out of those who may want to lay claim to his estate, his sister is the one we’re seeing in public the most and the one who filed the court paperwork indicating he died without a will. But he also had five surviving half-siblings.

Prince had two ex-wives, but no children.  As far as we can tell, his siblings will be his heirs.  Of course, if he set up a trust during his lifetime that has not yet surfaced, that could change things dramatically (hence, a follow-up post is in order).  At this point, and without a will, we’ll just have to wait and see. Prince’s estate could be tied up for years given its purported size.

One more point on this topic: if your heirs do not know you created a will, or can’t find it, it won’t do you much good. So keep that in mind, too. Create a will, then tell your heirs you did it, and where to find it.  That does not necessarily mean you need to give them immediate access to it.  We always advise that you keep your estate planning documents in a safe place, such as a home safe or a safe deposit box at the bank.

No one is immortal. The only thing that lives on forever is what you create. If you’re an artist, musician or other creative type, you can protect your legacy with solid legal documents and good instructions and conversations with your family. If you can’t manage to bring yourself to say it, sing it! Do whatever you have to do to let your family know your wishes, and back it up with sound legal documents.

If I can help you create an estate plan (or your next hit song!), let me know. You can reach me at (270) 781-6500 or nvinson@elpolaw.com.