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Prince: What Not Having an Estate Plan Means for His Property

Already, in the first four months of 2016, the world has lost three legendary musicians.  First, there was the loss of David Bowie, then Merle Haggard, and now Prince.

After David Bowie passed away, industry insiders were quick to point out that he was not only a musical visionary but also a visionary regarding music management, as Bowie was one of the first artists to maintain ownership over his recording copyrights. Naturally, the man who went to such great lengths to control his business and intellectual property over the years had executed a will that detailed his wishes for the distribution of his property after he died.  Thus all of his beloved hits, such as “Under Pressure,” “Let’s Dance” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” are now part of his estate and will be managed by individuals or organizations of his choosing.

Prince, another incredible talent with a lengthy career, was also known for having been one of the few artists to maintain ownership over his master recordings.  He was also deeply involved in the online management and release of his music. Prince, like David Bowie, went to great lengths to protect his intellectual property. And so, it came as a shock to me to discover that apparently, he did not have a will. How can someone who fought for years and years to gain control over his musical recordings—and even changed his name to a symbol at one point partly to aggravate music executives—not make arrangements to ensure that his property, especially his unreleased recordings, is handled according to his wishes after his death? And yet, as probate attorneys, we see this all the time.

Without a will, Prince’s heirs will be determined under Minnesota state law. Prince was not married at the time of his death, did not have any children and also survived both of his parents. Following the laws of intestacy in Minnesota, his estate will likely be distributed to his sister and his half-siblings who, under Minnesota law, are all treated equally. The court will have to verify that Prince in fact did not have any children and also locate each half-sibling and the heirs of any half-sibling who predeceased him. This takes a great deal of time and excessive court involvement.

What is maybe more troubling to the musician’s legacy is the fact that his family and the probate court will now need to determine who is in charge of all of his estate property. Initially, the Minnesota court appointed the financial institution who handled many of his accounts during his lifetime as temporary administrator to immediately step in and prevent mismanagement. The organization that is ultimately appointed administrator of the estate will need to have extensive experience dealing with an estate worth well over 100 million dollars and consisting of both intellectual and real property. The administrator will also have to manage the rumored 2,000 unreleased recordings allegedly located in a vault that could with the right management, increase the value of the estate by hundreds of millions of dollars. Mismanagement of these unreleased recordings and current music sales could cost the estate a great deal of money and drag out the administration for years. When Michael Jackson passed away, his estate was saddled with debt, but savvy management by his Trustees (chosen by him during his lifetime) has allowed his estate to grow considerably even after his death.

Prince, who went to great lengths to control and manage his image and music during his lifetime, will now have no say in who will handle his life’s work. Without some sort of guidance, his wishes may be lost in the shuffle and the efforts taken during his lifetime to protect his musical legacy could be lost.