Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher; Estate Planning 101, what are we learning?


At the end of last year it seemed as if every day there was a new report of a celebrity dying unexpectedly. As fans around the world mourned the death of some of Hollywood’s most iconic figures, reports of their estate planning, or lack thereof, also filled the headlines.

Prince: Intestacy and streaming music rights collide

In the wake of Prince’s unexpected death last April, fans across the world opened up streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify to play his greatest hits, only to find little to no music performed by the star was available. In 2015, Prince pulled his music catalog from all streaming services except Tidal. But now Roc Nation and Tidal, companies both backed by rapper Jay-Z, are fighting back against Prince’s estate administrator. Rolling Stone reported that the companies have recently filed a response to a pending copyright suit filed by Prince’s estate, alleging that the estate administrator shopped Prince’s music to streaming services, including Apple and Spotify, in violation of written and oral agreements the companies claim to have made with the late singer. Despite being zealously protective over his music catalog, Prince died intestate and after his death his sister asked a Minnesota probate court to appoint a special administrator to the singer’s estate. Prince joined a surprising list of celebrity musicians who died without a will, including Sonny Bono and Jimi Hendrix. In addition to dealing with the pending copyright suit filed by his estate, Prince’s siblings are still at odds about who should represent their interests in the estate.

George Michael: Freedom to leave what he wanted

George Michael, the iconic pop start most famous for his 90’s hit about self-liberation, died from heart failure on Christmas Day. The “Freedom! ‘90” singer’s estate is reportedly set to be distributed to non-family members, including 10 year old Bluebell who is the daughter of Spice Girls member, Geri Halliwell and goddaughter of Michael’s ex-partner, Kenny Gross. Michael, who made the Sunday Time’s 2016 list of the wealthiest British singers, left an estate that is estimated to be around $125 million. Despite being survived by two sisters and his last partner, Fadi Fawaz, the lion share of the estate may be distributed to his celebrity godchildren.

Carrie Fisher: How the force of her death will impact a franchise

Another interesting intellectual property estate planning issue surrounds the death of “Star Wars” franchise star Carrie Fisher, who died on December 27, 2016, just one day before her mother and star of “Singin’ in the Rain”, Debbie Reynolds. Walt Disney Pictures is already in negotiation with Fisher’s estate about the continued use of her likeness in the “Star Wars” franchise.  Even more interesting is the fact that Fisher, at age 19, signed away her likeness which included her right to earn money from the franchise’s merchandise sales, but was still able to receive money from “Star Wars” profits. Fisher, who played Princess Leia, will appear in the Episode VIII- which is set to be released in December 2017.  Despite rumors, Lucasfilm issued a statement saying it will not use a digital recreation of Fisher as Princess Leia in future films as it had done with Peter Cushing’s character, Grand Moff Tarkin. Fisher is survived by her daughter, Billie Lourd, who is expected to inherit her mother’s estate. According to reports, Fisher’s brother and Lourd’s uncle, Todd Fisher, said there was also a trust set up for Lourd. Fisher was estimated to be worth $25 million as compared to Reynolds’ $85 million.

Here’s what you need to know about estate planning and intellectual property rights:

  1. DRAFT A WILL- Dying intestate, or without a will, can lead to contentious litigation, especially if you have highly valued and diversified assets and complex intellectual property. Even if you are not a celebrity, you will undoubtedly leave behind property that will need to be distributed. Whether you have $500,000 or $5 million, estate planning is important and proper planning will prevent intestacy.
  2. ACCOUNT FOR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND COPYRIGHT- Even if you have already drafted a will, don’t forget to specifically account for all of your intellectual property. Who do you want to be paid royalties from your music? Do you have any existing contractual obligations that will continue after your death? Make sure that your estate administrator is able to answer those questions when reviewing your testamentary documents. Also, think twice about signing over your intellectual property rights, especially if they have the potential to earn money for years to come.
  3. BE SPECIFIC ABOUT PERSONAL PROPERTY- In the haste of drafting a will, testators may forget to include information about a family heirloom or piece of antique furniture that has been stored in the attic for years. If your will does not contain a clause that accounts for ALL of your personal property, and even if it does, make sure that you specify who you want to inherit your most prized possessions.
  4. UPDATE YOUR WILL- When was the last time you updated your will? Was it 20 years ago when you first drafted it? Don’t make that mistake! To put it simply: things change. You probably are not in the same financial position that you were in years ago and you probably don’t own all of the same property. It is good practice to regularly update your will so that you can ensure that your property is distributed in the way that you intend.
  5. RECONCILE ANY CONFLICTING WILL OR TRUST DOCUMENTS- Although Florida law provides for what should happen when a will conflicts with another testamentary document, you can help to make it a smooth process for your family and others who stand to inherit from you. If you realize that your will conflicts with another document, make the necessary changes and ensure that the new documents have been properly executed.
  6. HIRE A LAWYER– This is the most important step. At Chepenik Trushin LLP, we specialize in estate planning, estate administration, and estate litigation. Often times, a person will draft a will years before they pass away without showing it to a lawyer to review. This can lead to unnecessary confusion for your family and can even cause property to pass contrary to your intent. Contact us today to assist you with your estate planning needs.


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