Michael Jackson's estate faced a tumultuous beginning three years ago after he unexpectedly died. First his mother, Katherine, and then his father, Joe, filed challenges against the executors of his Estate, John Branca and John McClain. Katherine backed off her attack and Joe's case was thrown out of court.
Since then, the Estate has been relatively peaceful, at least on the surface. Branca and McClain have led the Estate from a debt-ridden start to enormous profits. They began around $500 million in the red when the King of Pop died. Three years later, the Estate reported $475 million in profits.
Of course, Branca and McClain have enjoyed a huge financial windfall from this as well. They have a special arrangement, blessed by the probate judge who oversees the estate, allowing them to earn 10% from most deals they cut for the Estate. Branca and McClain are now facing a new attack over their handling of the Estate.
Several of Michael's brothers and sisters -- including Janet, Randy, Tito and Jermaine -- signed a letter that they sent to Branca and McClain accusing the pair of fraud, forgery, exploitation and abuse. The letter was published on a celebrity gossip website recently.
But that's not all. The letter states that Branca and McClain lied and took advantage of their 82-year old mother, managing to get her to agree to increases in their percentage fees from the gross income of the estate. They claim to be considering retaining a well-respected law firm, Baker Hostetler, who advised them of potential criminal misconduct by the executors. They promise legal action in the weeks to come.
Branca and McClain released a prompt statement refuting the allegations. They deny that the will or their actions have been fraudulent and point out that three separate courts have rejected a challenge to the will. The executors say the courts laid to rest any doubts as to the will's validity. They lament that the accusations have been brought in the midst of their remarkable progress in securing the financial future of Michael's children. Branca and McClain say they have diligently carried out their fiduciary duties. They decry the Jackson siblings "false and defamatory accusations grounded in stale Internet conspiracy theories".
So, yes, it looks like the fighting over Michael's Estate may soon return to court. If so, it will likely be a short-lived battle. The reason that Joe Jackson lost his legal challenges is because he is not a beneficiary and lacks legal "standing." Because he would not benefit from the estate, he could not challenge the executors. Michael's siblings will have the same problem if they try to bring suit.
However, this raises an interesting point regarding the executors' statement. Because Joe did not have standing to bring his challenge to court, and because Katherine withdrew her claim before it was ruled on, no judge has ever decided the issue of whether Michael's will was valid or not in light of these allegations.
To clarify, as has been raised to us by counsel for Branca and McClain since our article first was posted, the will was admitted to probate and the time period for challenging of the validity of the will under California law passed, which has the effect of determining that the will is valid. But this was done without consideration of any challenges to the will's validity.
It's interesting that the Jackson siblings focus on Michael's will and do not mention his trust. Michael also had a trust, along with his will, but interestingly, the trust was dated a few months before the will. The will provides that Michael's assets are to be distributed to his trust, and from there to Katherine, his children, and charity. But the entire document is far from the quality one would expect from any experienced estate planning attorney. Usually, wills and trusts of this nature are prepared and signed together. And estate planning documents prepared for someone of Michael's wealth and status are almost always much more comprehensive and well-planned than Michael's will and trust.
Does that mean that the Jackson siblings' allegations of fraud and conspiracy are true? No. But certainly there are a number of questions that would have been very interesting to see explored through a lawsuit brought by people who actually did have proper legal standing. It may be that there are legitimate explanations for the questions raised by the Jackson family.
But at this stage, as pointed out by counsel for Branca and McClain, it would be too late for anyone to challenge the validity of the will in court. There may indeed be future challenges to the actions of Branca and McClain, but those could only be brought by one of the beneficiaries of Michael's trust, not his siblings.
The reality is many people in our country fall victim to abuses through coercive changes to wills and trusts -- even for people of modest wealth. Too many people see the elderly or others who have medical conditions as easy-prey, and lawsuits to challenge invalid wills and trusts are often complicated and expensive. Anyone who thinks they have a loved one who was taken advantage of in a way that led to a will or trust that wasn't what they really wanted should consult with an experienced probate litigation attorney before it's too late, to learn what legal rights they have.
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+.