Michael Jackson Family Feud: Lessons for Wills and Trusts

PHOTO: Michael Jackson performs in concert circa 1986.
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Do the latest squabbles of the Jackson family — over Michael Jackson's will and estate — offer any lessons for other people drafting wills or setting up estates? Yes, although as estate attorney Donald David says wryly, "This is not your average American family."

Five of the Jacksons, in a letter to the estate's executors, have called the will of the late pop star "fake, flawed and fraudulent." They claim its signature is false: That though the document gives Michael's location on the day he signed as Los Angeles, they know him to have been in New York. They accuse the two executors of everything from coercing family matriarch Katherine Jackson, to mishandling business deals, to getting too juicy a cut for themselves from those same deals.

In a letter of their own, executors John Branca and John McClain dismiss the claims of fraud as "stale Internet conspiracy theories." They say they find the family's accusations particularly disheartening, since they come at the very time the two have made "remarkable progress" turning around the estate, which was $500 million in the red at the time of the pop king's death but three years later showed a $475 million profit.

Big as the numbers are, and exotic as the Jackson family story may be, some experts say the dispute has lessons to teach ordinary folks.

"What do the estate planning mistakes of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Princess Di and other well known celebrities have to do with you? Everything! " says the website of attorneys Danielle and Andy Mayoras, authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights.'' Errors of the rich and famous, they contend, can show families across America how to avoid similar pitfalls.

Pitfalls such as what? Such as not acting fast enough (if you're the beneficiary), when you think there's something fishy about a will.

In California and other states, say the Mayoras, heirs have only 120 days after a will goes into probate to challenge its validity. The Jacksons failed to meet that deadline. Thus Michael's will became not just valid after that, but, in the law's eyes, valid beyond challenge. "You want to bring your challenge right up front," advises Andy.

Is there nothing, at this point, that the Jacksons can do? Not much, says Danielle Mayoras. They could try, she says, to allege a very high level of fraud called "fraudulent concealment." But to succeed with that, they'd have to prove that reason they made no challenge earlier was because, say, the estate deliberately concealed the existence of a later version of the will.

A second Jackson lesson: Have your will updated regularly -- every 2 or 3 years — so that it can realistically addresses present circumstances.

Michael Jackson made out his will in 2002, the Mayoras say, but he did not update it before he died in 2009. He appointed as his children's guardian his mother, Katherine Jackson (now 82), with Diana Ross as her backup.

"Normally we advise people with small children to really think hard about who they want as guardian," says Andy. You want somebody who's up to the task of rearing small children. For an 82-year-old, he says, that task has to be stressful and demanding.

Katherine, it has been speculated, may have suffered a stroke before or during a recent stay in Arizona.

Does all this mean Michael erred in his will by appointing her his children's guardian? Not necessarily, thinks Donald David. He agrees the choice of someone so old was "a bit unusual." But, he adds, "It's premature for us to say there is a problem. Right now nobody knows what happened in Arizona."

He calls the late singer, whom he met once in a deposition, "one of the smartest businessmen I've ever dealt with" and someone more than capable of making sound choices. Of Michael's choice of Katherine, he says, "Perhaps he felt she was the best person. Perhaps he felt others might not be as protective or might be more interested in what they could get for themselves."

Lesson three: Jackson's trust.

If you're setting up a trust, as Michael Jackson did to provide for his mother (among others), is it better to give your trustees detailed instructions how you want them to execute your wishes, or is it better to speak in generalities? Jackson's trust, according to David and the Mayoras, says only that the monies are to be spent on Katherine's care and well-being, without providing more specifics.

David thinks that's fine. "It's good to be general," he says. In his view, it's a mistake to craft instructions for your trustees that are "so long and convoluted that they try to be a road map." Does "care and well-being" mean she has to have a car and chauffeur? Does it mean she must live in nothing smaller than a 1-bedroom apartment? That's best left up, he says, to the interpretation of the trustees you've picked -- who, in this case, are Branca and McClain. Further, to create "an artificially restrictive structure" is to invite litigation.

The Mayoras, in Jackson's case, disagree. Jackson's trust document, only 22 pages long, does not comport, they say, with the size or complexity of the singer's estate. "The entire document," they write, "is far from the quality one would expect from any experienced estate planning attorney." By comparison, they point to the far more substantial and detailed document they say was created for the actress Farrah Fawcett, who died the same day as Jackson.

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