Martin Luther King, Jr. Estate in turmoil
May 23, 2009
There's no denying the greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr. Seldom has someone's legacy been preserved so pristinely -- and so privately. His family has aggressively pursued anyone who used his name or likeness without permission. There have been no authorized books telling the real story of his life. No movies have been made with the full tale of his struggles and triumphs, revealing the details that only his family have.
All that may be about to change. Or is it?
Dexter King, one of three living children, is the executor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Estate. Last year, he negotiated a $1.4 million book deal with Penguin Group. This year, he authorized a deal with Steven Spielburg's DreamWorks Studio for a full feature length film. Both seek to finally reveal to the public the true story chronicling King's life and legacy.
But Dexter King's two siblings, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, may put a stop to it all. They sued Dexter last year, alleging that he breached his fiduciary duty and refused to communicate with them and share financial records they are entitled to receive. They even claim he misappropriated estate assets. That case has been pending since July and is still unresolved.
Bernice King is in charge of their mother's estate. Coretta Scott, King's widow, died in January 2006. Her estate owns personal love letters and other documents exchanged between the couple, which Dexter is asking a judge to release to him, so he can turn them over as part of the Penguin book deal. That case has also been pending since last year.
Now the latest -- Bernice and Martin III say they won't go along with the DreamWorks movie agreement because they were not consulted about it. In fact, they found out about it by email the day before the deal was made public. DreamWorks said it may not make the movie unless the whole family agrees.
Siblings feuds over estates and trusts are common, especially where the executor or trustee refuses to share basic information that the beneficiaries are legally entitled to receive. It always amazes me how simple open communication could clear up so many of these breach of fiduciary duty lawsuits. This battle may cost the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., countless millions of dollars -- and deprive the public of the inside story about how the great dreamer became so great.
An interesting side note to this story. For all his greatness, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a mistake that far too many people make. He never created a will. His Estate has been administered on an intestate basis since he was assassinated at age 39 in 1968, making the affairs and feuding of his children all the more public.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+