Client Alert

The many probate challenges of high value estates

Probate serves one primary purpose: to clearly define ownership of assets after a death. Within this purpose, the ideal is to provide an efficient and undisputed transfer of ownership. It is never as simple as handling a title or deed from one party to another. In truth, complex property requires complex transfers and a thorough review of pertinent laws.

The legacy of James Brown is a clear example. Brown passed away in 2006 and his estate is still in dispute today. Over nearly twelve years, more than a dozen lawsuits have questioned its legality, involving children, his spouse, his charity and multiple state laws. The value of the estate may be as high as $100 million.

Property and usage rights muddy the water

Music copyrights earn royalties that change value according to public demand. It is a complex business structure, and often different entities own different copyrights within an artists’ overall catalog. This layered structure has parallels with many businesses, who diversify interests and have different agreements depending on who they are working with. The rules of termination rights have created additional conflict when it comes to licensing Brown’s songs today through his trust.

In addition to copyrights, branding and other items hold real monetary value that is hard to quantify. For example, Brown, known for his unique fashion, specified that his costumes go to his children in his will. These hold sentimental value to his children and notable value for memorabilia collectors. The New York Times notes that his estate has been appraised at between $5 million and $100 million, according to different sources.

High-value, high risk

These high-profile examples emphasize the unique challenges that high-value estates bring in probate. Any business owner has a varied portfolio where each property has its own bylaws. Broadly speaking, the more a property is worth, the more complex its regulations will be. Intellectual property, whether a song, a patent or something else, has especially complicated rules regarding ownership, licensing and transfer of ownership.

There is no simple way to hand over ownership of complex property. It’s essential to confirm every element of ownership and usage to ensure that your chosen recipient actually receives the inheritance you intend without the cost of unnecessary legal battles that devalue the property and creating in-fighting in the meantime. When dealing with sophisticated business holdings, it’s important to work with experienced legal counsel who understand the inner workings of business, property and probate.

Posted in Client Alert, Probate, Scenario.