Prince’s legacy in jeopardy
I recently watched one of Prince’s first TV interviews. He was shy and unpolished and exuded an air of startling liminality. Was he male or female, gay or straight, a kook or a genius? When the interviewer asked him why he’d turned down all offers of record deals, Prince replied simply “They wouldn’t let me produce the albums myself.”
And I loved him at that moment. I loved his commitment to the integrity of his work, and his sense of self- sufficiency.
But it seems Prince’s self-sufficiency could now – after his death – represent massive problems for his sprawling estate.
Estimates of Prince’s estate are at around $387 million, according to the website Celebrity Net Worth. But the potential estate fights won’t just be about money. Prince also kept an a number of vaults of unreleased songs.
Prince’s 55 year old sister, Tyka Nelson, has filed for probate with the Carver County District Court in Minnesota. In the probate documents, Nelson reveals that he died without a Will.
What is probate?
All estates, no matter how big or small, need to be administered. Bank accounts need to be closed off, government and other institutional records need to be informed and any debts need to be paid off. Also, if the estate has assets, they need to go somewhere. Although each legal system is different, an Application for Grant of Probate generally determines who has the legal right to administer an estate.
Keep in mind, often if the courts get a hint that the person applying to administer the estate is ill-equipped, or the choice will exacerbate potential conflict in the family (and let’s face it, what family is without its unique history of conflict?) the court may appoint a government official to take care of the administration. Of course, there’s no guarantee a court official will understand what’s important to you (or even have the opportunity to care). By that time, though, it is too late to have your say.
Prince’s estate and its potential problems
Entertainment and legacy lawyer Craig O’Hara says Prince’s dying without a Will represents potentially massive problems for his estate, his creative legacy and whomever is eventually appointed to administer what he owns. Let’s cover each of these one by one.
Blended family issues: Prince has five living half siblings and one full sibling, Tyka. Two half siblings passed away before he did. Now, in some states, including Minnesota where the Probate application has been lodged, half siblings are treated as full siblings.
Already here, according to O’Hara, is the potential for a huge family war:
“Families often harbour deep-seated resentments, jealousies and bad memories that seem to rear their heads during stressful times such as when someone dies. Fights costing an unreasonable amount of time and energy frequently occur over, what to an outsider looks like a small thing, like a watch. In a potentially wealthy estate like Prince’s greed sometimes rears its head. Mix this with a family history of painful events and slights, and you’ve got a great recipe for fights. Of course, this is frequently more extreme in blended families, where there are often lines drawn right from the outset.”
Creative IP: It’s quite well known that Prince has a legal history of going to great lengths to protect his intellectual property. Recently, the company Prince hired to enforce his copyright lost an appeal to order the take down of a Youtube clip featuring a small child singing Prince’s song “Let’s Go Crazy”. And then there was the amazing performance of the Radiohead song “Creep”, which he demanded be scrubbed off Youtube (but allowed it to be released again after Thom Yorke tweeted “Tell him to unblock it. It’s our… song.”)
At GIM, we are not at all critical of Prince’s protective stance over his creative property. However, it seems that his failure to create a Will and a Trust to provide a structure for future ownership or use of his intellectual property is inconsistent with his attempts in life to control its use. O’Hara says:
“Prince has potentially left his intellectual property open to distribution against his control – as a worst-case scenario. As a lesser, but still perhaps devastating consequence for his legacy, he’s also not left directions for how he wants his legacy used. There may be decisions made about it by the administrator of his estate that he may not have agreed with whilst he was alive.”
Loss of estate funds: This one’s an easy and obvious one, according to O’Hara. He says:
“Whenever a person leaves behind uncertainty and silences about how they want their legacy to look, this usually results in the filing of court documents and disputes that need to be settled by the court. This all costs money. If you’d like to avoid your estate having to foot the bill for enormous and unnecessary legal costs, get your legacy documents like Trusts and Wills in place so the courts don’t have to do it for you. For an estate like Prince’s, the extra costs may be in their millions.”
Burden on others: O’Hara has this to say about the burden dying without a Will causes others:
“Anyone who’s ever been executor of an estate knows what an enormous burden this is on time. Even when the estate is built on firm legal structures, increasingly there is so much red tape involved. And this is onerous. I sincerely feel for Prince’s sister who now has to go through these court processes, on top of the grief of losing her brother. It’s possibly the worst time in a person’s life to have to be filling out forms and dealing with bureaucracies. Even if you have only a small estate, it’s a burden and cost to others if you don’t.”
This is not just about Prince. It may be about you too.
If one of the reasons we make art is because it is our small contribution to human thought and emotion – a sign that we were here, if you like – then it makes sense that we’d use any structures we can to make sure the work gets used in ways we want it used. Those decisions we make about our work form part of the suite of decisions that make up our legacy.
Stories abound of where creative legacies are in dispute. And it looks as though Prince’s legacy may be about to add to that pile.
I often ask my mates in the creative industries what they want to happen to their work after they’re gone. A surprising number of responses go something like, “Oh well, I’m dead anyway, what does it matter?” I find this response shocking, mainly for its contraction. For here is a group of people dedicated to their craft, willing to forgo the advantages offered by jobs outside the creative industries (i.e. jobs where you get due payment for the work you’ve made), willing to put themselves through the utter destabilisation that often comes with seeing the world from a creative perspective. Because they believe art matters. And yet, here they are being all nonchalant about what happens to their creations after they die. Doesn’t make sense and it feels…irresponsible.
What I’d like to see instead is creative people caring so much about what they make that they take the time and relatively minimal expense to record what they’d like done with what they make after they’re no longer around. So no one has to be left with the burden of guessing. So the State doesn’t have to decide.
Then there’ll be no more sisters having to step out of the demands of their own busy lives to step in and take burdens and responsibility for someone else.
I love Prince, and his music has enhanced my experience of living. I just hope the music he recognised as mattering in his lifetime doesn’t become some advertising company’s jingle for cereal. Or maybe that’s what he would have wanted.
Photograph: Jimi Hughes