When British pop star George Michael, 53, whose full name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, died on Christmas Day, 2016, he was discovered by his lover, Fadi Fawaz. Tensions have been building between Fawaz and Michael's surviving family members, which include his two sisters and his father, ever since that day.
According to reports from England, Michael's family members want nothing to do with Fawaz, to the point that he is not even welcome at the funeral. After months of delays before Michael's body was released, during which time it was determined he died of natural causes related to a heart condition, Michael's sisters are planning a small, private ceremony at a 30-seat chapel.
Fawaz has complained that the family left him out of funeral plans and felt that he was being blamed for George Michael's death, until the final determination of how he died was made public. George Michael's cousin said it was Fawaz who snubbed the family, not the other way around. Reportedly, Fawaz was paid more than £10,000 a month to be with Michael.
The real battle will be over George Michael's London townhouse, estimated to be worth £5 million. Fawaz has been residing in the house ever since Michael died, even though Fawaz reportedly is not named as a beneficiary in Michael's will. The family is said to be contemplating legal action to remove Fawaz from the home, which Fawaz claims he should be allowed to use.
Specifically, Fawaz believes that he had an agreement with George Michael to use the property for the foreseeable future. This apparently was based on a conversation, not a written agreement.
If that is the case, then Fawaz would not have a legal leg to stand on. In England, as in the U.S., agreements involving real estate must be in writing to be valid. So if George Michael did agree that Fawaz could stay in the home -- either as part of a business arrangement or due to the personal relationship -- that would not be binding on the Estate without a written statement that spelled out the terms.
But this doesn't mean that Fawaz will go away quietly. Because he has been living in the home, and has a claim that he is entitled to stay, the family would have to initiate legal proceedings to evict him. Once in court, Fawaz would certainly argue that the verbal agreement gives him the right to occupy it. And there is no telling what else Fadi Fawaz may say to complicate the matter. That legal proceeding could turn ugly and embarrassing for Michael's family.
While the specifics of George Michael's estate plan have not yet been made public, he reportedly divided his estate -- estimated to be worth in the neighborhood of £105 million (or roughly $130 million) -- primarily between his two sisters, through a will. If that is the case, then George Michael's last will must be publicly filed and processed through probate court, which will allow it to be easily obtainable by members of the British media or anyone else. (When wills are probated, they become public documents for anyone to read.)
So far George Michael's will has not been filed for probate because the family has focused on the funeral, which was delayed by the investigation into his cause of death. Once it's filed, we'll know for certain who is to receive what and what assets Michael had. We'll also find out if Michael wanted Fawaz to receive anything, including the right to stay in the London home.
George Michael's estate highlights why it is much better to rely on a living trust rather than a will. Living trusts, when properly drafted and funded during one's lifetime, can help families avoid probate court. They can also spell out specifically who receives what, when and how, without the necessity of probate court, where disputes are more common.
For example, if Michael did want Fawaz to be able to occupy the London home for a time after he died, that could have been spelled out in a private trust document, free from media scrutiny.
It's not only celebrities who benefit from detailed and thorough estate planning, including living trusts. Anyone who wants to protect their heirs from the increased expense, hassle, and public nature of probate court should talk to an estate planning attorney about whether a living trust makes sense for them.
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.
Prince died without a will. So did Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, and many other legendary musicians. Snoop Dogg doesn't even want a will.
The question is: Why?
It seems like such a basic concept; everyone needs a will. Otherwise the laws of the state you live in determine who receives your assets and controls your legacy after you die. Without a will, you have no say in what happens, and the chances of a family fight increase dramatically.
Even though a will is relatively simple to create, studies consistently show that between 60% and two-thirds of adult Americans don't have a will. All states recognize a "holographic" will, which is one in your own hand-writing. They are perfectly valid as long as a couple basic conditions are met. This is not to say they are perfect by any means, but usually better than nothing. And most lawyers can create a basic will for a few hundred dollars or even less.
Even when an estate is modest is size, dying intestate -- without a will -- is never a good idea. So why don't more adults have wills -- including a surprising number of the extremely-wealthy?
These musical superstars highlight important lessons about why so many people fail to create a will before they die:
1. Prince: Didn't Trust Professionals
The artist originally known, then formerly known, and then known again as Prince, reportedly developed a deep distrust of professionals, including lawyers. He felt he had been burned earlier in his career by signing legal documents, so a stream of professionals was unable to convince Prince Rogers Nelson to sign important legal documents like a will.
The first battle over the Prince Estate will be to determine who Prince's heirs actually are. This morning, a man named Carlin Q. Willliams filed the first official paternity claim, based on his mother's affidavit saying she met Prince in July of 1976. One thing led to another, and nine months later, Carlin was born. A DNA test will come next, based on blood samples already preserved from Prince's body.
This paternity claim is just the beginning of the long road for the Prince Estate, trying to determine who should receive Prince's money. If Prince had done a simple will, his instructions would have dictated who received what. Paternity tests would not have been necessary.
Sadly, Prince's distrust of professionals means that a large chunk of his fortune will be spent paying legions of professionals while his heirs (both actual and potential) try to sort out the mess he left behind.
Despite the probate process having just begun for Prince's Estate, one thing is clear -- it will be a long and rocky road for everyone involved.
While no one can dispute the artistic and creative greatness of the artist whose real name was Prince Rogers Nelson, the famed singer's business smarts were often overlooked. Prince closely maintained and guarded ownership and control over the rights to his music, including the publishing rights, master recordings, performance royalties, and more. He famously stored hundreds of unreleased songs in his “vault”, to be released only when he wanted them to be made public.
The value of this music cannot be known until the contents of the vault are revealed, but estimates of Prince’s net worth based the earnings and future royalty rights to music already released range from $300 million to $500 million.
Those figures may be too low. His music sales have already soared by more than 16,000% in the days following his sudden death. That bump could only be the beginning.
With so much money in play — not to mention Prince’s musical legacy itself — it is shocking that Prince appears to have died without a will. If that is the case, it is certain that trouble will follow for the Prince Estate.
Prince died with no known children, spouse, or living parents. His closest relatives are his sister, Tyka Nelson, and five half-siblings. Nelson recently filed a petition in the Minnesota Probate Court claiming that Prince died intestate, meaning he did not have a will. Since then, media reports suggest that the Prince heirs are already arguing.
The first probate court hearing was held on May 2, 2016. It was a brief, procedural hearing that lasted only about twelve minutes long. Despite how short it was, eleven different lawyers attended.
Likely Court Fight Over The Prince Estate Begins
The only thing of substance made clear at the first hearing is that the search for a will or trust is ongoing, but so far, has come up empty. With each passing day, uncovering an estate planning document such as a valid will, grows more and more unlikely. However, it's still possible one may exist.
When Michael Jackson passed away, his mother Katherine Jackson filed a similar petition as the one that Nelson filed. Katherine asked for a probate estate to be opened for her son believing that he died intestate. To her surprise, however, Michael Jackson actually had both a will and a revocable living trust. Jackson’s estate planning documents did not place any family members in charge of his estate or his trust, which led to years of fighting in court.
Hopefully, Prince did some form of estate planning, including a will as well as a revocable living trust. If Prince had a trust, and used it properly, then his financial affairs should remain private and outside of the public eye. This wouldn’t be surprising considering how private Prince was during his lifetime. A trust is the best way to insure that someone’s wishes are followed and the legacy is protected, usually without court intervention.
On the other hand, if Prince truly died with neither a will or trust, then his estate will have to address many complications, including who will inherit.
Prince's sister and half-siblings stand as heirs of his estate, as of now. Under Minnesota law, when someone dies without a will, and with no spouse, children or parents, then the individual’s siblings become the heirs entitled to receive the assets in the estate. Half-siblings are treated as full siblings under the state law, so Prince’s five half-brothers and sisters would be on equal footing with his full sister, Nelson.
This means each would receive an equal share, regardless of how close they were with Prince when he was alive. Each, of course, would stand to inherit tens of millions of dollars, at least.
But first the question of children will have to be addressed. Without a will or trust, Prince’s estate would potentially pass to anyone who could prove that he or she was a biological child of Prince. This opens the doors to potentially dozens, if not hundreds, of people coming to court asking for paternity tests to try to win a golden ticket to the Prince lottery. In fact, someone would not even have to be a biological child of Prince to share in the inheritance. If someone could prove biological relationship as a brother, sister, or possibly even a niece or nephew of a deceased sibling of Prince, then that person could be an heir as well.
At the initial court hearing, no one came forward claiming to be a long-lost child or other relative. But it is very early in the probate process, and there is plenty of time for that to happen. In fact, early media reports demonstrate that heir-hunting companies have been swamped with people contacting them claiming to be a Prince heir. It's only a matter of time before someone files a claim with the court.
There is also the question of who will control Prince’s legacy. With no will, the court would name an executor of the estate, with authority to conduct business involving all of Prince’s assets. Would Nelson be named the executor? Does she have the ability to handle a multi-million dollar estate? If so, will Prince’s half-siblings fight her in court?
With uncertainty, answering questions like these often result in extended and expensive family fights in probate court. And probate court is open to the public, which could lead to a media circus. In fact, the initial court hearing was swamped with dozens of media members, despite the fact that nothing of substance was decided by the judge.
In fact, the only real decision made was to confirm that Bremer Trust, a trust company related to a banking institution, has been named as the Special Administrator to manage the assets of the estate. This is a temporary position only, allowing the company to oversee the Prince estate until an executor is ultimately determined and appointed by the probate judge.
Reportedly, Prince had a relationship with the bank for many years, so it makes sense that the bank’s trust entity would be in the best position to take control of the estate as the probate court process begins. In her petition to start the probate process, Nelson asked for Bremer Trust to be appointed so it could fulfill many important roles, including determining who the heirs are, where they are located, and managing Prince’s ongoing business and financial affairs.
At the May 2nd hearing, all of the heirs agreed with Bremer Trust acting in this capacity and the probate judge confirmed it formally. So, as of now, Bremer Trust is in charge of the Prince legacy, but how that will be handled will be sorted out well down the line. First and foremost, Bremer Trust will be searching high and low for any sign of a will, determine if there are any other potential heirs, and of course securing whatever may be in Prince's vault, so that the Prince estate assets can be secured and protected.
Bremer Trust is merely getting things started. The person or company with ultimate control will not be determined for many months or even years.
There have been many fights in the celebrity world over control of high-profile estates. The executor typically oversees the royalty rights, licensing, and image usage as well as decides on what contracts are signed on behalf of the estate. In Prince’s case, of course, this means having the keys — and controlling the rights — to whatever is stored within the vault. This reported treasure-trove of unreleased music could be used to justify millions in dollars of fees to the executor. So a fight for control is a near certainty.
And that’s not even the biggest problem that will arise if Prince died with no will or trust. Even more troubling is the reality that Prince would have had absolutely no say in who will control and benefit by his legacy, image and likeness rights, brand, and his musical creations. This is a common problem, repeated time and time again, with musicians who die young or unexpectedly.
The best example was Jimi Hendrix. He passed away at the age of 27 with no will or trust, so everything passed to his father under New York intestate law. When his father died years later, it led to a long and expensive court battle over who would control the Hendrix legacy, brand, and music. Ultimately, the adopted half-sister of Jimi, whom he only met a couple of times before he died, won control. Is this what Jimi would have wanted? His brother that he toured with and shared a close relationship with has no control over, and did not benefit financially from, Jimi’s legacy.
Hopefully unlike Jimi Hendrix, Prince did the proper estate planning so that the people or charities he wants to benefit from, and control, his musical and financial legacy will be able to do so. If not, his estate will be tied up in probate court for years, resulting in many millions of dollars being paid to attorneys, administrators, executors, and others. Even more distressing, Prince’s music, image, and likeness may be used in any number of ways that Prince may not have wanted, no matter how privately he guarded them when he was alive.
That’s the problem of dying without a will or trust. The wishes and intent of the person who died no longer matter. Plus ugly and expensive estate battles are much more common.
With someone as iconic as Prince, that would truly be a shame.
Only a very few pop artists enjoyed lasting careers as diverse, colorful, and successful as David Bowie. He remained fascinating and on the cutting-edge, up until the very end, in ways that extended far beyond making music.
Bowie, whose real name was David Robert Jones (and who didn't want to be confused with Davy Jones), passed away from liver cancer a mere two days after the release of his latest album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday. Knowing that his cancer was terminable, many people believe Bowie intended his last album -- featuring lyrics about mortality -- to be a farewell. In fact, the song Lazurus begins with the line, "Look up here, I'm in heaven," and ends with, "Oh, I'll be free ... Just like that bluebird ... Oh, I'll be free ... Ain't that just like me?"
It's fair to say there was no one else like David Bowie. He was truly one-of-a-kind, from his iconic music, various personas, and his ever-adapting image, to his finances.
Tupac Shakur was well-known for his "Thug" image, his rap prowess, and his many Tupac Shakur's estateconflicts -- leading up to the tragic shooting that took his life at age 25. So should anyone be surprised at the high number of legal battles involving Tupac Shakur's estate? Or that Shakur could continue to be a pioneer in rap music, even years after his death?
This is installment #17 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.
Tupac Shakur came to fame in large part due to his battles with police, inspiring lyrics in his first solo release so violent that Dan Quayle publicly denounced them -- building Shakur's "Thug" image in the process. In the same time frame, he was arrested five times for violent crimes, leading to numerous criminal charges and civil lawsuits, culminating in a confrontation during which he was shot multiple times. The very next day, Tupac was sentenced to prison for molestation.
What better way to start the new year than by counting down Trial & Heirs Top Ten Celebrity Legal Battles of 2015, complete with lessons?
1. Bill Cosby vs. many woman - Andrea Constad is one of dozens of women who have sued Cosby for defamation, accusing the comedian and actor of lying when he denied sexually abusing them years ago. In Constad's civil lawsuit, Cosby's deposition was unsealed, revealing that he admitted giving women quaaludes and having intercourse with them. He says both the drug use and sex were consensual. Recently, a Pennsylvania district attorney brought charges against Cosby for sexual assault based on the 2004 encounter with Constad.
Lesson: When victims of assault or other injuries wait too long, they lose the right to sue under the statute of limitations. The specific length of time varies based on what state the events happened in and what type of claim is brought. That's why most of the accusers are suing Cosby for defamation, rather than sexual assault. Even criminal cases have a time limitation on when cases can be brought. This new criminal case against Cosby was brought not long before the 12-year statute of limitations expired. Anyone who feels they have a claim to sue, for assault or any other reason, should act promptly and not wait until it is too late.