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.
Even though Michael Jackson’s family members were initially unhappy with not having control, Jackson’s estate and musical legacy have been well-protected — and actually flourished — since he died. He did not leave his estate to chance by dying without a will.
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.
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 Contact@TrialAndHeirs.com