So much trouble caused by such a simple concept. When you create a will, you decide who receives your assets after you die. If you don’t, the laws of the state you live in determine it. What happens when those laws aren’t too clear? Chaos. And the Prince estate is experiencing it in full force.
Maybe it’s fitting for the estate of the man who sang, “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Prince’s estate — reported to be worth as much as $300 million dollars before taxes — is tied up in the early stages of a long battle over who really are his heirs. Still? Didn’t the judge already resolve that months ago?
Originally, it appeared so. Dozens of people came forward claiming to be Prince’s son, daughter, or other relative. The DNA did not support them, and the judge denied their claims. He determined that Prince’s full sister and five half-siblings all qualified as heirs. He ordered the other two, a reported niece and grand-niece, to undergo DNA testing as well.
The battle pits Prince’s six recognized heirs on one side against the daughter and granddaughter of Prince’s late “brother,” Duane J. Nelson, Sr. Why “brother” in quote marks? Because this probate legal battle – which is just getting started – comes down to what “brother” really means. More specifically, how many different ways can you determine a parent-child relationship?
It doesn’t seem like the concept should be difficult, right? If you and a male have at least one genetic parent in common, then he’s your brother. Even without genetics, if there was a legal adoption, or other legally-recognized parent-child relationship, such as through assistive technology (a sperm donor, for example), then, once again, the matter is clear.
The difficulty comes down to other relationships that are murkier. What if your father called the man his son and was listed on his birth certificate as the dad, even though, biologically-speaking, he wasn’t? And then what happens if they never lived together as parent and child, and the parent in question never supported the man financially, even though they called each other father and son?
Lots of questions with no clear cut answers — either in terms of what the law really means or what type of relationship Prince’s father and Duane J. Nelson, Sr., really had when they were both alive. The only thing that is clear is that the Minnesota legal system will be dealing with lots of Prince craziness for years to come.
Of course, the enormity of dollars at stake intensify the feud. Prince was recently ranked by Forbes as the #5 top-earning deceased celebrity, bringing in $25 million and selling more albums than any other deceased musician in the last year. And those in charge of managing his estate have already turned his home into a museum and are reportedly shopping for a buyer for Prince’s secret vault of unreleased music for $35 million — not to mention a planned greatest-hits album in the works. With this much money involved, you can bet that the recognized heirs and potential heirs won’t stop fighting anytime soon.
The case comes down to whether Minnesota law recognizes a non-genetically related brother (who was never adopted, and not born of assistive technology) as a valid heir. Duane J. Nelson’s descendants claim that a brother is still a brother, even without the genetic relationship, as long as the man and the father treated each other as parent and child. Prince’s recognized heirs argue instead that the laws are limited to the defined categories of genetic relationship, adoption, and births created by assistive technology.
Can Minnesota’s intestate laws really be that unclear? Since those laws serve as a will-substitute for people who die without wills, you would think that the legislature would have made those laws specific on the point of who is considered an heir and who isn’t.
The Duane Nelson descendants have asked the probate court overseeing Prince’s estate to hold a long and expensive trial so that they can prove that Nelson had a parent-child relationship with Prince’s father. Prince’s six recognized heirs contend that a trial — not to mention the countless hours that will be spent before trial through depositions, subpoenas, reviewing documents, etc., — would be a waste of time and money. They also fear that if the parent-child relationship is expanded beyond the recognized categories of biological relationship, adoption, and births by assistive technology, then it opens the door wide to all sorts of fights over people trying to prove a “parent-child” relationship.
Potentially, this could open the door back open to some of the dozens of claimants who were previously excluded on the basis of DNA. If Duane Nelson’s descendants can go down this road, why not others?
The reality is that Minnesota’s intestate laws aren’t very clear on this point. The laws do list the specific circumstances when a parent-child relationship is clearly recognized, but leave just enough wiggle room with the language that the door might be open to establishing other parent-child relationships. The statutes do not outright state that no other parent-child relationship can create a basis for heirship in an intestate case. But they also do not state that other types of relationships can qualify.
So who is going to decide this and resolve the craziness? The probate judge overseeing the case gets the first crack at it. After he rules, the losing side will undoubtedly appeal the court’s decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. After that, another appeal will be filed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In other words, the question of what the Minnesota intestate laws really mean won’t be decided for a period of years.
If the law is interpreted to allow other parent-child relationships, thereby opening the door to Nelson’s descendants, then the battle will focus on whether Duane Nelson’s relationship with Prince’s father was close enough to count. That will turn on the testimony of dozens of witnesses and perhaps thousands of pages of documentary evidence. How many of Nelson’s basketball games did Prince’s father attend? What did he say to his friends and relatives? Who paid for what, when, and why?
Again, lots and lots of questions. The important ones do not have simple answers. And it all could have been avoided so easily, if Prince simply had created a will.
Know anyone who hasn’t gotten around to making out his or her will yet? Maybe the person says he’s too busy. Or maybe she’s afraid to think about the concept of dying. Or maybe it’s just a matter of getting to it “someday.”
Do your friends and family members a favor. Tell them what kind of craziness can happen when someone dies without a will.
11/4/16 Update: The Judge has recently ordered that Nelson's descendants are not considered heirs of the Prince Estate because of the lack of genetic link. You can expect that they will appeal the ruling to the Court of Appeals, so this battle is far from over.