18 Jul 2012
Michael Jackson's Siblings Promise New Fight Over His Estate
Michael Jackson’s estate faced a tumultuous beginning three years ago after he unexpectedly died. First his mother, Katherine, and then his father, Joe, filed challenges against the executors of his Estate, John Branca and John McClain. Katherine backed off her attack and Joe’s case was thrown out of court.
Since then, the Estate has been relatively peaceful, at least on the surface. Branca and McClain have led the Estate from a debt-ridden start to enormous profits. They began around $500 million in the red when the King of Pop died. Three years later, the Estate reported $475 million in profits.
Of course, Branca and McClain have enjoyed a huge financial windfall from this as well. They have a special arrangement, blessed by the probate judge who oversees the estate, allowing them to earn 10% from most deals they cut for the Estate. Branca and McClain are now facing a new attack over their earnings … and that’s just the beginning.
Several of Michael’s brothers and sisters — including Janet, Randy, Tito and Jermaine — signed a letter that they sent to Branca and McClain accusing the pair of fraud, forgery, exploitation and abuse. The letter was published on a celebrity gossip website yesterday.
In it, Jackson’s siblings claim his July 7, 2002 will was “Fake. Flawed and Fraudulent.” They say Michael was not in Los Angeles that day and couldn’t have signed the will. The letter also says that Michael told them in the months leading up to his death that he despised the pair and didn’t want them to have anything to do with his life or estate.
But that’s not all. The letter states that Branca and McClain lied and took advantage of their 82-year old mother, managing to get her to agree to increases in their percentage fees from the gross income of the estate. They claim to be considering retaining a well-respected law firm, Baker Hostetler, who advised them of potential criminal misconduct by the executors. They promise legal action in the weeks to come.
Branca and McClain released a prompt statement refuting the allegations. They deny that the will or their actions have been fraudulent and point out that three separate courts have rejected a challenge to the will. The executors say the courts laid to rest any doubts as to the will’s validity. They lament that the accusations have been brought in the midst of their remarkable progress in securing the financial future of Michael’s children. Branca and McClain say they have diligently carried out their fiduciary duties. They decry the Jackson siblings “false and defamatory accusations grounded in stale Internet conspiracy theories”.
So, yes, it looks like the fighting over Michael’s Estate may soon return to court. If so, it will likely be a short-lived battle. The reason that Joe Jackson lost his legal challenges is because he is not a beneficiary and lacks legal “standing.” Because he would not benefit from the estate, he could not challenge the executors. Michael’s siblings will have the same problem if they try to bring suit.
However, this raises an interesting point regarding the executor’s statement. Because Joe did not have standing to bring his challenge to court, and because Katherine withdrew her claim before it was ruled on, no judge has ever decided the issue of whether Michael’s will was valid or not. In other words, Branca and McClain’s statement in response to the Jackson siblings’ letter was somewhat misleading.
At this point, unless Katherine reverses course and brings a formal will challenge (which is likely too late at this point), no court of law will resolve the question of whether the will was validly signed anytime soon. The Jackson siblings say that their mother, who is 82 and recently had a mini-stroke, is afraid to challenge the will in court. If that is the case, that type of claim could only proceed if brought by Michael’s children. Once they each turn 18, any of his children will have the legal right to challenge the will and the actions taken by the executors. Michael’s son Prince is 15 years old.
It’s interesting that the Jackson siblings focus on Michael’s will and do not mention his trust. Michael also had a trust, along with his will, but interestingly, the trust was dated a few months before the will. The will provides that Michael’s assets are to be distributed to his trust, and from there to Katherine, his children, and charity. But the entire document is far from the quality one would expect from any experienced estate planning attorney. Usually, wills and trusts of this nature are prepared and signed together. And estate planning documents prepared for someone of Michael’s wealth and status are almost always much more comprehensive and well-planned than Michael’s will and trust.
Does that mean that the Jackson siblings’ allegations of fraud and conspiracy are true? No; that remains to be seen. But certainly there are a number of questions that would be very interesting to see explored through a lawsuit brought by people who actually do have proper legal standing. It may be that there are legitimate explanations for the question raised by the Jackson family. Perhaps someday it will all play out in court.
The reality is many people in our country fall victim to abuses through coercive changes to wills and trusts — even for people of modest wealth. Too many people see the elderly or others who have medical conditions as easy-prey, and lawsuits to challenge invalid wills and trusts are often complicated and expensive. Anyone who thinks they have a loved one who was taken advantage of in a way that led to a will or trust that wasn’t what they really wanted should consult with an experienced probate litigation attorney before it’s too late, to learn what legal rights they have.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.