Michael Jackson Estate May Bring Many Questions to Estate Planning Attorneys’ Offices

Michael Jackson Estate May Bring Many Questions to Estate Planning Attorneys’ Offices


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It’s not everyday that a guardianship case involves stars like Michael Jackson, his mother and sister, Katherine and Janet Jackson, and the great Diana Ross. It’s only slightly less unusual that a guardianship case involves a decedent’s believed preferences for a living and able parent to have no contact with the children and for them to live with their grandmother. So, when the guardianship fight inevitably begins for Michael Jackson’s three minor children, it will likely raise questions in potential clients’ minds about what to provide for their own children should they die before the children reach majority age.
 
TheSmokingGun.com, a website that features celebrity contract riders, mugshots and other legal documents related to celebrities, claims to have a copy of Michael Jackson’s will. (http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/0701091mjwill1.html) Upon review (and assuming that this is a legitimate document), it does state in Article VI that the testator intentionally omitted provisions for his ex-wife. It does not, however, state a preference that the ex-wife be kept from contact with her biological or any other of his children.
 
Chapter 37 of California Wills and Trusts (Matthew Bender, 2009) discusses how nominations for guardians of minor children should be handled in a California will like Jackson’s. Section 37.08, Expressing a Wish That Particular Person Not Serve as Guardian, details the factors that a court will use when appointing a guardian and provides a sample will provision for expressing the wish to keep a specific person from being named as guardian to minor children.
 
The will also indicates in Article I that a Michael Jackson Family Trust be established. Certainly this must be a rather lengthy document given the rumors of his near-insolvency at the time of his death, his substantial holdings of the rights to musical works and of his preference to keep certain relatives away from the proceeds of his estate. More can be read in Chapter 5 of Planning for Large Estates (Matthew Bender, 2009) about how to set up a family trust for an estate with substantial assets.
 
Articles IV and V of the will give the three estate Co-Executors authority to pay all taxes resulting from Jackson’s death and to dispose of estate property in a prudent manner. If rumors of Jackson’s near-insolvency are true, the Co-Executors, who are also the co-Trustees of the Michael Jackson Family Trust, may have a difficult road ahead in simultaneously settling the affairs of the estate and preserving funds for the trust. The California Probate Code provides that trustees have a duty of loyalty to administer the trust solely in the interest of its beneficiaries. See Cal. Prob. Code § 16002(a). More information regarding a trustee’s duty of loyalty is available in California Trust Practice, §§ 10.01 and 13.02 (Matthew Bender, 2009).
 
In the weeks following Jackson’s death, media began reporting details of Jackson’s alleged prescription drug abuse. Based upon these allegations, interested parties may contest the validity of the will because Jackson lacked mental capacity when it was executed. California law requires that a testator be able to (1) understand the nature of the act of executing a will; (2) understand the nature and situation of his property; and (3) understand his relationship to the people who have claims to his property and who will be affected by the will. In re Estate of Smith, 200 Cal. 152, 158 (Cal. 1926). The will could be held invalid upon proof that drug use at the time the will was executed prevented Jackson from satisfying this test. More information about mental capacity to execute a will is available in California Wills & Trusts, § 11.03 (Matthew Bender, 2009).
 
Given media reports of Jackson’s difficult relationships with family members, supporters and numerous personal doctors, interested parties might also contest the validity of the will on grounds of undue influence. According to the Supreme Court of California, the following are indicia of undue influence:
 
(1) The provisions of the will were unnatural. (2) The dispositions of the will were at variance with the intentions of the decedent, expressed both before and after its execution. (3) The relations existing between the chief beneficiaries and the decedent afforded to the former an opportunity to control the testamentary act. (4) The decedent's mental and physical condition was such as to permit a subversion of his freedom of will. And (5) the chief beneficiaries under the will were active in procuring the instrument to be executed.
 
In re Estate of Yale, 214 Cal. 115, 122 (Cal. 1931). The will’s omission of familial beneficiaries, any contradictory expressions regarding disposition of Jackson’s property, and Jackson’s poor physical condition could be evidence that an individual close to Jackson prevented him from exercising free will in drafting or executing the will. More information regarding undue influence on a testator is available in California Wills & Trusts, § 11.05 (Matthew Bender, 2009).