Potential legal red tape over Prince's estate highlights importance of a will

With a will yet to surface, Prince's family faces a potentially long, costly and complex legal process to divvy up his assets, illustrating the importance of writing a will, even for those not leaving behind a multi-million dollar estate.

His siblings have already begun the court proceedings. A Minnesota judge appointed a corporate trust company to temporarily oversee his estate last week, saying the emergency appointment was necessary because the superstar musician doesn't appear to have a will and immediate decisions must be made about his business interests.

But problems may already be emerging among his heirs, which would further complicate the process. CNN reported that the initial meeting between the siblings was contentious and ended in shouting. 

"Especially for a man surrounded by so many lawyers and managers, etc., it's astonishing that he didn't have a will," said Judith T Younger, a professor of family law at the University of Minnesota who teaches a course in property, wills and trusts.

Prince Estate

Tyka Nelson, centre, the sister of Prince, leaves court after a judge confirmed the appointment of a special administrator to oversee the settlement of Prince's estate. (Jim Mone/Associated Press)

With no spouse or children, Minnesota law states that his estate will be distributed equally among his siblings and half-siblings. But that could become complicated if they fail to agree on how certain assets should be treated and/or sold. For example, the siblings will have to come up with a valuation of Prince's vault of unpublished music and agree on what should be done with it.

"There is still the problem — are any of these siblings experts in managing assets of this sort that he has." said Younger.

Another issue, says Younger, is that Minnesota doesn't have statutes that would deal directly with the inheritability of Prince's persona — the right to commercially exploit his image through items like T-shirts and mugs.

'Always been very careful about his properties'

"The question becomes do they get included in his estate? Had he had a will, he could have set up an arrangement with people who knew what they were doing to manage it or license it. Or perhaps he would not have wanted any postmortem publicity."

Prince Estate

Alfred Jackson, the half-brother of Prince, appeared at probate court. (Jim Mone/Associated Press)

"He has always been very careful about his properties, his music his unpublished intellectual property," she said. "The best way to ensure that people you trust are managing and controlling it after your death is to have a will designation."

It's possible that Prince cared little how his estate was to be settled after his death. But as Charles Wagner, Toronto estate lawyer, pointed out, was "there no one who he's loved in his life? Is there no one who had a special place? Is there anything he wanted to perpetuate his legacy?"

Even for those without an estate like Prince's, getting a will is a prudent move, said Wagner.

Risk litigation

"If you want to ensure that your assets go to the people you want them to, your best bet is to go to a lawyer who knows what they're doing ...and get a good will," Wagner said. "Otherwise you risk litigation, otherwise you risk the money going to people you don't want."

Joseph Gyverson, a Toronto estate lawyer, said it's a fairly common misconception that if someone dies without leaving  a will, their estate goes to the government. That can happen if the deceased has no living heirs — otherwise legislation sets out a hierarchy as to who is entitled to inherit the estate. The general rule in North America, he said, is that the spouse will inherit everything followed by children, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles and then other next of kin.

Prince Estate

Prince's half-sister Norrine Nelson also appeared at the probate hearing of her brother's estate. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/Associated Press)

Without a will, family members of the deceased will most certainly end up in court, Gyverson said.  And if there is any disagreement between potential beneficiaries about who should get what, the estate could be tied up in court for a long time, costing a large amount in legal fees that could eat up much of what they were entitled to receive in the first place.

Choosing the executor

There's also the issue of choosing the state trustee, or executor of the estate, when there is no will to say who will fill that powerful role. The trustee or executor can deal with the assets according to their discretion. Without a will, a number of people could go to court to apply for that position.

"And that's where you could get an issue with something like the Prince estate where you've got multiple beneficiaries, all of whom have the right to a say as to who is going to be chosen to be the executor.

Prince Estate

Prince's half-brother Omarr Baker leaves court following appointment of Bremer Trust, National Association as special administrator to manage the musician's assets. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/The Associated Press)

"And if there are conflicting interests, they may not agree who will be the executor. Then there can be a battle over who is going to be the executor, who is going to be in control of the state. And the more complex the estate is, the more valuable the assets are in the estate, the more there is that potential to be that conflict."

People don't need to get a will for themselves, Gyverson said, but so the people they care about are taken care of and they're making things easier for their friends and family when they die.

"Because when someone is in the process of grieving over lost loved ones, they don't want to have the additional hassle of not even having a will to help them deal with the property," he said.

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