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Celebrity Legacies: James Dean Estate Has A Cause

James Dean was the iconic rebel without a cause.  The James Dean Estate, on the other hand, has been driven by a cause -- maximizing the value of his image and likeness.  But was it taken too far when his heirs sued Twitter?  James Dean

This is installment #16 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.

Perhaps no Hollywood legend has lasted so long, and left such an impact, as James Dean.  After dying in a tragic car crash at age 24, in 1955, Dean continued to appear among the top of highest earning deceased celebrities year after year, including being in the top ten as recently as 2012, when his estate earned about five million dollars.  Not bad for actor who only starred in three major films.

James Dean died without a will, leaving his estate and financial legacy to his father under intestate law -- not to mention about $100,000 in assets, which was all that Dean owned at the time (after paying taxes).

James Dean's assets when he died were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the estate assets would really be worth.  A foundation was established to maximize the commercial value of his name, likeliness, and image, for all the heirs that followed.  There can be no doubt that those in charge of the foundation have done so successfully, but it hasn't been an easy road.

James Dean Heir Takes On Movie Studio

In 1991, Warner Brothers sued the James Dean Foundation Trust and others who helped market his image under the "right of publicity".  The movie studio claimed, because of standard language in movie actor contracts during the 1940's and 50's, that it owned exclusive rights to market his name, image and likeness.

After an extended lawsuit, a federal court in California ruled in favor of James Dean's estate, determining that the old contracts only gave the studio the right to market motion pictures using James Dean's name and likeness, and even then it was limited to using images from the movie itself.  The heirs kept the sole right to sell merchandise and otherwise profit from his legacy.

This was an important legal ruling for all estates of actors who worked in the film industry during that time period.  If Warner Brothers had prevailed, movie studios and their corporate successors would own these value rights, not the heirs of dozens of former movie stars.

James Dean Estate's Next Battle:  Twitter

The James Dean Estate tried to blaze a similar new path in 2014.  A corporation on behalf of the heirs filed suit against Twitter and various Twitter users who had accounts affiliated with James Dean, including the main one -- @JamesDean.  The lawsuit alleged that the name and Dean's image couldn't be used on Twitter without the heirs' permission.

Unfortunately for the heirs, this time they lost the lawsuit.  They were unable to identify who the users of the offending Twitter accounts were, so the case was dropped before the claims could be resolved in court.  But the estate kept the right to refile the lawsuit and try again, if they ever could discover who set up the accounts.

In the meantime, the Twitter account @JamesDean is no longer active.  It was suspended by Twitter after the lawsuit was filed and hasn't be used since, despite reports that the James Dean Estate would like to use it.

So the legal question of whether fans and others have the right to use celebrity names to open Twitter accounts has not been resolved in a court of law ... yet.

Estate Planning Lesson

But one question has already been answered.  No one with assets of significance -- even 24-year-old movie stars -- should procrastinate doing their estate planning, starting with at least a basic will.

Did James Dean want his father -- and ultimately, his father's relatives -- to inherit and control his name, likeness, and image?  How would the ultimate rebel feel about millions of dollars being earned each year from memorabilia and collectables showing his face?

The answer, in the eyes of the law, is that it doesn't matter what James Dean would have wanted because he never created a will or other estate planning documents.  The laws of the state he lived in when he died, not his wishes, governed who received and controlled his legacy.

Celebrity Legacies is a documentary series airing on the Reelz cable channel featuring Danielle and Andy Mayoras and other experts.  The popular TV show explores the lives, legacies, and estates of a different celebrity each episode.  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 [email protected].