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Inside The Battle Raging Over The Estate of Charles Manson

Almost two months after his death, Charles Manson's body remains in limbo as an unusual legal battle heats up over control of — and the potential to profit from — his estate.    Charles Manson

This of course raises questions. Why would anyone bother to fight over the estate of a man who spent almost five decades in prison?  Even if he was one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, what could there be worth fighting over? 

And if there is money to be had, how could someone claim profits generated by a man who became famous for committing profound acts of evil, and still sleep comfortably at night?

Those questions don't seem to be slowing down three combatants vying for control of the Charles Manson estate and legacy.  An avid collector of Manson memorabilia, named Michael Channels, became pen pals with Manson after sending him about 50 letters, leading to a meeting in prison in 2002.  Manson then wrote and signed a purported will, naming Channels as his executor, authorizing his body to be released to Channels, and bequeathing all of this property to Channels.

This 2002 will specifically directed that Channels was to receive all of Manson's music and royalty rights to the songs Manson wrote, as well as his image and publishing rights.  That same will specifically disinherited anyone claiming to be a child of Charles Manson and all other relatives.

Jason Freeman was second to the fray.  Freeman is recognized as Manson's grandson from one of Manson's two acknowledged sons, Charles Manson, Jr. (who later changed his name and then committed suicide).  Freeman and his attorney dispute the validity of the 2002 will, questioning how it could have been signed in prison by Manson and also apparently signed by Channels.

In California, two disinterested witnesses are required to a sign a will, but in this case, there appears to be only one signature along with those of Manson and Channels.  California law does still permit a will to be valid if one of the two witnesses was also a beneficiary, and therefore not "disinterested," but that person then has to carry the burden of proof to convince the court that the will was not caused by duress, menace, fraud, or undue influence.  That may be hard for Channels to do, considering he said on record that the will was sent to him, unexpectedly, after meeting Manson.  This suggests that Channels was not present when Manson signed it, meaning it would be difficult for Channels to prove that the will was valid.

To make the case more complicated, another man, Matt Lentz, claims he is a biological son of Manson, given up for adoption as a newborn.  He says that he has a will from 2017 naming him as the sole beneficiary and a different memorabilia collector, Ben Gurecki, as the executor.  This purported will has not yet been made public, but reportedly it only has one witness signature.  If valid, that document would supersede the prior will and leave Lentz and Gurecki in control of both Manson's body and whatever property, royalty and image rights remain.  Lentz says he will seek a DNA test to prove his biological relationship.

Until the competing claims can be sorted out, Manson's body won't be laid to rest.  Perhaps this is fitting.  As Manson wrote on the back of the 2002 will, "I'm not in the best spot to rest in peace."

There are many legal questions that have to be answered before his body can be laid to rest, or cremated, and many more to resolve about any potential for profit that could be generated from the estate.   These include:

  • Which county court should be considered to be the one where Manson was domiciled - giving it jurisdiction to handle the probate proceeding - the one where Manson was hospitalized when he died, the one where he was an inmate before going into the hospital, or the one where he lived before his arrest?
  • Is there a valid 2017 will and what does it say?
  • Is there an appropriate authorization in that document for someone to handle the burial or cremation of Manson's body?
  • If the 2017 document isn't valid, how about the 2002 one?
  • If neither are valid, then should Freeman, as the grandson, be considered "next-of-kin" (which would give him the legal right to receive Manson's body) or should it pass to the purported son, Lentz?
  • If DNA testing does prove that Lentz is the biological son, does the adoption cut off his right to be considered as next-of-kin, as it would for an intestate inheritance?
  • And after that is resolved, the big question -- is there any money to justify the fight?

That last question by itself is complicated.  Charles Manson's 2002 will claims that he authored over 100 songs, and at least two were commercially recorded.  These include a 1993 Guns N' Roses recording of "Look at Your Game, Girl" and the 1969 Beach Boys song, "Never Learn Not to Love," that was primarily written by Manson.  Where are the royalties for those, and potentially other, songs being paid?  Certainly victims of the Manson murders would have been entitled to them at some point, but those claims may have expired over the course of nearly 50 years since the murders.

On top of the songs, there is the merchandise.  Many collectors are willing to pay top dollar for items connected to infamous serial killers. For example, last year, a Victorian bed frame sold for $14,000 at auction because it was connected to one of the Manson murders.  Now that a Quentin Tarantino movie, reportedly set to star Leonard DiCaprio, is planned, interest in Manson "Murderabilia" will only increase.

How much will people be willing to pay for his final belongings, which are said to include two guitars, art, writings, and music?  Even articles of his clothing could sell for thousands of dollars.

Profiting from the fame of a man responsible for the brutal murders of at least nine people is distasteful enough.  Yet there are several men willing to endure a long, and likely expensive, legal battle for the right to control these profits and to give Charles Manson a "proper burial."

The lesson here is that even estates that don't appear to have significant value can spark ugly and dramatic courtroom battles.  That's why it's important for everyone to have at least a basic will -- preferably not of the homemade variety.  The problem with wills done without the help of an experienced estate planning attorney is that they are more likely to be challenged in court.  An attorney serves an important role as gatekeeper to help make sure that a will is prepared validly, by someone of sound mind, and free of undue influence.

It may be months — if not years — before the question of whether Charles Manson left behind a valid will is resolved.  And then the victor will have to address the legal and ethical problems of what to do with the remains and assets of one of our country's most notorious killers.

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]