There is no doubt about the greatness of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately, his estate planning wasn’t so great. In fact, King made a mistake that too many people make everyday in our country … he procrastinated with his legal planning and died without a will.
In large part because of this, his legacy has been marred by fighting among his children over the handling of his estate, including claims of secrecy, mismanagement and misappropriating assets. Years ago, MLK’s heirs formed a corporation to manage King’s estate, but then they fought over control over the corporation. You can read Trial & Heirs’ coverage of the lawsuit between the King children here. Luckily, the heirs were able to reach a settlement and ended that round of fighting.
But, that doesn’t mean the court battles have ended. The corporation which operates the estate turned its attention to a television anchor in Southern Mississippi, named Howard Nelson Ballou. The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc., sued Ballou and claimed he has possession of historic documents relating to King.
Ballou’s parents had been close friends with King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Ballou’s father was King’s fraternity brother, and his mother had been King’s personal secretary in the 1950′s. She helped him research, type and edit his speeches, answered his mail and made his travel arrangements. She says that, through her relationship with King, he gave her the documents.
Ballou’s mother, Maude Williams Ballou, now 86 years old, recently said in a sworn statement that King wanted her to keep the documents by giving them to her at different times, and telling her, “[H]ere, Maude, this is for you.” She says she always considered the writings to be her personal belongings, and King never asked for them back between then and the day he was assassinated in 1968.
Ballou’s husband stored the documents at Elizabeth City State University, in North Carolina, where he worked until he passed away. The University found the documents in 2007 and gave them to their son, Howard Nelson Ballou. When a local newspaper story mentioned the discovery of the documents, the King heirs took notice.
They sued Ballou in federal court in Mississippi. The Ballou family, unlike the King Estate Corporation, likely does not have endless funds available to pay lawyers for a lawsuit over what King really intended.
Howard Ballou is trying to end the lawsuit early. He filed a motion asking the Judge to dismiss the case, based on the sworn statement of his mother. The King Estate Corporation is arguing against it, saying it’s premature to even think about dismissing the case before its lawyers have been able to question Maude Ballou in a deposition. Those lawyers have pointed out that that any documents which Maude Ballou came to receive as an employee of King may not qualify as gifts. The Judge has not yet ruled on the dismissal request.
Ultimately, it all comes down to what Reverend King intended when he gave the documents to Maude Ballou. Did he want her to hold onto them as an employee, or keep them as gifts? Obviously, no one really knows, making this lawsuit a difficult one.
That is the nature of lawsuits involving gifts and verbal promises. They happen to families of all different means, especially when those who passed away failed to make their intent clear in a will or trust.
King could have clarified his intent rather easily by creating even a simple will. Because he didn’t, the result is an expensive lawsuit where no one really knows what he intended … although Maude swears under oath that the documents were gifts to her and remained as personal belongings to her family ever since.
In our law practice, we see fights over personal property such as jewelry, artwork, furniture, and even Christmas ornaments and family pictures. It’s sadly too common, especially considering how easy it is to prevent court battles like this one.
That’s why everyone should clearly document their intentions in a will or trust, with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Google+ .