It has been more than twenty years since Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, died from a shotgun blast to his head, at age 27. His talent, passion, and creativity launched a new movement for not only rock music, but American culture itself.
This is installment #7 of our Estate Planning Lessons From The Stars series, which is based on the Celebrity Legacies TV show for which we provide commentary as the estate legal experts. See other articles in the series here.
Cobain was a game-changer who burned too bright -- brighter than he could handle. His suicide note summarized it well: "I don't have the passion anymore, and so remember, it's better to burn out than to fade away."
Cobain's death may have epitomized the burning out of a flame that grew too hot, but it sparked something else -- court fights and ugly battles over his legacy that continued for almost 20 years.
His widow, Courtney Love, has been at the center of it all. In 1997, she and Cobain's former Nirvana band-mates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, formed a limited liability company to manage all Nirvana-related projects. Just a few years later, on the eve of the release of a massive 45-track box set of Nirvana rare recordings, Love filed a lawsuit to dissolve the LLC.
Love claimed that her 1997 agreement with the pair should have been voided because she signed the deal under bad advice, and Cobain was really the band -- Grohl and Novoselic were only sidemen, Love said. They, unsurprisingly, counter-sued Love, seeking to remove her from the LLC because she was "incapacitated". They asked for a psychiatric examination of her.
The fighting went back and forth until 2002, when they settled the lawsuit and agreed to green-light the release of the box set. Eventually, when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in the Spring of 2014, Love, Grohl and Novoselic appeared together and said they mended their relationship.
The lawyer, Rhonda Holmes, accused the would-be defendants of "such greed and moral turpitude" that the case would "make Bernard Madoff look warm and fuzzy." Yet the lawsuit never came to fruition, much to Love's disappointment.
So what did Love do instead? She took to Twitter to accuse Holmes of being bought out by those responsible for the claimed estate fraud. Love even blamed Holmes for causing a rift in her relationship with her daughter, Frances Cobain, Kurt's daughter.
In fact, in 2009, Frances Cobain went to court for a restraining order against her mother. Love lost custody of her daughter as well control of a trust fund that had been set up through Kurt Cobain's estate for Frances' benefit.
Holmes never did file a lawsuit on Love's behalf, but instead sued Courtney Love, claiming she committed libel by her accusatory tweet. Love eventually won the lawsuit, after a trial in early 2014. The jury found that the accusations were untrue, but that Love didn't knowingly make a false statement.
What was the fall-out from all this fighting? Love says she lost about $27 million, mostly because of the lawsuits, and she ended up selling a share of the publishing rights to Nirvana music in 2006, for $50 million. Love is still estranged from her daughter, Frances, who reportedly inherited 37% of her father's estate when she turned 18, in 2010.
Love also gave up control of Cobain's image and licensing rights, in exchange for a loan in 2009 from the trust that was created for Frances. Despite this, Love said in an interview that she still has veto power over how Nirvana songs are used. Love also said that Frances has no vote in the Nirvana music catalog until she turns 40.
The Kurt Cobain Estate has an estimated value of $450 million -- although Courtney Love has previously claimed most of the estate assets were gone. Clearly, Cobain's image, publicity rights, and songs have led to a continual income stream for Courtney Love and Frances Cobain both.
With that much value, one would have thought that Cobain set up a detailed estate plan, with a will, various trusts, and other legal protections so his family wouldn't fight, right? Nope. Kurt Cobain made the mistake that up to two-thirds of adults in our country have made -- he never made out even a simple will. His assets passed "intestate," meaning without a will, to Courtney Love and Frances Cobain.
By dying intestate, not only did Cobain have no say in who received his assets, or how or when they received them, he was not able to name an executor or trustee to manage his assets. This included his image rights, publishing and performance royalties, and his valuable licensing rights. As a result, Love was left in charge, despite her well-publicized struggles with drugs, psychiatric problems, and instability.
In fact, an attorney said that Cobain came to her before he died to create a will that would have excluded Love, because Cobain was planning to divorce her. Is that true? We will never know, but we do know that Cobain's messy estate never should have been exposed to this much trouble.
Cobain owed it to his loved ones -- especially his young daughter -- to do the proper estate planning, including a will and at least one revocable living trust. It's a lesson everyone can learn from. Even those with modest estates should have a will to protect their families and their legacies.
Those who chose not to control their legacies from the grave are taking a huge risk of a family estate fight. While few can match the intensity or importance of the legacy of Kurt Cobain, everyone's legacy is important to the loved ones they leave behind.
Celebrity Legacies is a documentary series airing on the Reelz cable channel, featuring Danielle and Andy Mayoras and other experts, to explore the lives, legacies, and estates of a different celebrity each week. Click here for upcoming show times.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and attorneys with the Michigan law firm, Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at Contact@TrialAndHeirs.com.