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What's Driving The B.B. King Estate Feud?

The late Riley B. King — better known as blues legend B.B. King — often said that the only woman in his life was his guitar, Lucille.  But that wasn’t exactly true.  King estimated that he had 15 children by 15 different women.  No wonder one of his biggest hits was called, When Love Comes To Town.   B.B.-King

B.B. King took responsibility for his children.  According to CNN, he set up a multimillion dollar education fund for his descendants.  King wrote in his memoir that he assumed responsibility every time a woman came to him and said a child was his, without arguing about whether that was true or not.  One of his daughters, Patty King, said in a previous interview with Rolling Stone that B.B. King was a great dad who had “done well” by his children.

That same daughter is now leading the charge against B.B. King’s business manager of 39 years, LaVerne Toney.  Patty King and half-sister Karen Williams lead a panel of five King children, out of the eleven surviving children, who have made serious accusations of wrongdoing against Toney.  These range from not letting the children see their father before he died, to providing improper medical care, and even poisoning B.B. King.

Because of their claims, the Las Vegas coroner conducted an autopsy.  The initial conclusion was “no evidence to substantiate the allegations” but the coroner could not give a final determination because he was awaiting the toxicology test results, which take several weeks to process.

Toney’s attorney called the allegations false, defamatory, and without merit.  He said they had already filed to have Toney appointed as the executor and personal representative ofB.B. King’s estate, based on B.B. King’s will, which named Toney.  The children’s lawyer has filed a formal objection to the appointment, challenging Toney as a suitable representative due to the allegations.

The initial court hearing was postponed to June 25th.  The King children appear to be gearing up for a large fight.  They retained a new attorney, Benjamin Crump, who also represents Trayvon Martin’s family as well as the family of Michael Brown, who was killed in the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting.  Crump said he was brought in to investigate the circumstances and lend a fresh set of eyes to review the matter.

Toney’s attorney responded by saying that it did not matter who presents the case and they looked forward to their day in court because the allegations are false.  The attorney also accused the King children of being motivated by money.
B.B. King
The King heirs deny they are driven by money.  However, their accusations include claims that Toney looted B.B. King’s bank accounts of more than one million dollars and misled the children about the state of King’s finances.  They clearly believe there is plenty of money at stake.  The children’s initial attorney said that she believes that B.B. King’s estate should be worth between five to ten million dollars, although in a prior attempt to obtain guardianship over their father, the daughters claimed he had tens of millions of dollars worth of assets.

Toney’s lawyer contends that B.B. King’s estate isn’t worth that much, although clearly King has substantial royalties that will flow into his estate in the years to come, along with whatever King accumulated during his life — which included an aggressive touring schedule of up to 300 performances a year.  No matter how much money is involved, the seriousness of the allegations are such that this case will not end quickly or quietly.

Although this estate battle is unique in terms of the allegations of poisoning, cases based on upon claims that a manager or adviser took financial advantage of a famous person as they grew older and declined mentally are common.  Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, James Brown, Rosa Parks, and Ray Charles are just a few examples.  All of those cases ended after long and expensive court battles.  Disputes of this nature are messy, emotional, and the allegations are often difficult to sort out, because much depends on who is telling the truth.  That cannot be determined this early in this proceedings.

These estate battles do provide a valuable estate planning lesson for everyone though.  Estate disputes between someone in charge of an estate and the heirs are common even when no one famous is involved and the dollars are much more modest than in celebrity estates.  That’s why everyone creating a will, trust, or other estate planning document should think carefully about who to place in charge.

Many people make the mistake of choosing the oldest child, the one who lives closest, or even naming all of the children to serve together.  It important that people doing their estate planning instead select the person who is most trustworthy, even if that person is someone completely disconnected from the family.

That’s because distrust is often at the heart of these disputes, even more so than money.  Yes, money is usually involved, but the true motivation that turns a simple disagreement into an ugly lawsuit like this is when the heirs are convinced the person in charge committed wrongdoing.  Often, this mistrust is fostered by perceptions of secrecy, whether true or not.

There is no simple rule for who is the best executor or trustee for everyone.  Rather, it’s an important decision that most people don’t spend enough time considering.  As B.B. King’s estate mess shows, when the person put in charge of an estate is not trusted by the rest of the family, everyone can end up feeling blue.

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 [email protected].