Celebrity Estate Disputes from Michael Jackson, Steve McNair to Anna Nicole Smith

Recent celebrity deaths spotlight families' estate disputes.

ByABC News
July 20, 2009, 3:45 PM

July 22, 2009 — -- Poor families are alike – to crib from Tolstoy; but every backbiting, conniving rich family is backbiting, conniving and rich in its own way.

Michael Jackson's body has not yet been put in the ground and already family members and executors of his will are in court wrangling over his estate.

For the rich and famous disputing a will or battling a family member in probate court can be as much a part of the lifestyle as champagne and caviar.

(To skip ahead to any estate mess in this story, click on these links: Michael Jackson, Steve McNair, James Brown, Anna Nicole Smith, Jimi Henrdix, Jerry Garcia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Brooke Astor, Michael Crichton, Tom Carvel, Marlon Brando.)

Jackson's death, like that of former quarterback Steve McNair, shines a light on what happens when rich people die and their family members have different ideas on how the deceased's money should be distributed.

Each man took different approaches to planning their estates – Jackson had a will, McNair did not. But in both cases, family members want what they believe is theirs.

Though Jackson and McNair's cases might be two of the most recent examples of families potentially torn asunder by greed and envy, they certainly are not the first.

The following list is a survey of some of the nastiest family feuds in recent memory. Sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandsons and granddaughters, and not to mention a handful of scorned ex-wives, embittered executors and hapless hangers-on each looking for piece of the pie.

For lawyers, much of these disputes can be mitigated with a good old fashioned will and some forward thinking.

"The things that give rise to disputes generally are: who is in charge of the estate, and whether there are young kids involved, whose guardianship is involved and who gets the money," said Andy Katzenstein, an estate planning lawyer based in Los Angeles. "You see that in large and small estates. In larger estates there is more to fight over, but it isn't necessarily how much is at stake that makes people fight."

Ambiguity in important documents can also fuel family feuds, Katzenstein said.

"It's easier if there's a discussion about aspects of the plan that might be controversial so that a dispute is diffused beforehand," he said. "That way, there isn't a surprise. Everyone's clear that that's exactly what the person wanted."

A will should be revised whenever there is a significant change in an individual's life, such as marriage or birth of a child, if not every three or four years, Katzenstein said. Failing to do so can result in a document that does not accurately convey an individual's wishes.

Nearly one month since Michael Jackson died, his family members and the executors of his will are engaged in a delicate legal dance as each party sizes up the other and awaits their day in court.

On July 17, Jackson's 79-year-old mother Katherine asked a judge to give her the option of challenging the authority of the executors Jackson named in his will: attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain.

It is a risky move on Katherine's part. The late pop star's will includes a "no contest" clause that disinherits any beneficiary who challenges the will and loses.

As a result, Katherine said she "has not yet decided whether to object."

In his will, written in 2002 and filed in court days after his June 25 death, Jackson lists Branca and McClain as executors of an estate valued at more than $500 million.

The two men have been named special administrators of Jackson's estate until Aug. 3, when they will return to court with Katherine, who had previously requested to become the interim executor of her son's estate.

Jackson's will placed his estate into a trust, that gives 40 percent of his wealth to his mother, 40 percent to his three children and 20 percent to charities.

Katherine currently has temporary guardianship of Jackson's three children—Prince Michael, 12; Paris Michael Katherine, 11; and Prince Michael II, nicknamed Blanket, 7. According to the will, Jackson wanted his mother to take care of his children. Jackson's father, Joe, and Debbie Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife and biological mother of his two oldest children, were left out of the will.

Katherine Jackson and Rowe are reportedly working out a deal regarding custody of the children. Though Katherine has custody, Rowe could ask a court to make her the children's guardian. Whoever gets custody will presumably be given a fair amount of money from the trust to take care of them.

When Jackson died, the pop star was $331 million in debt. The Associated Press reported he claimed $576.6 million in assets as of March 31, 2007. Among Jackson's assets is a 50 percent share in the Sony/ATV catalog that includes rights to 251 Beatles songs, worth $390.6 million.

Gunned down by his girlfriend on July 4, former Titans quarterback Steve McNair left no will or directions on how to distribute his estate.

Complicating matters further, no one is entirely sure how much McNair was worth, or even how many children he really had.

Though his total worth is still being established, it is known that he earned over $75 million in contracts over a 13-year career.

McNair's wife, Mechelle, was granted the right to control the fallen quarterback's estate by a Davidson County, Tenn., judge after filing an emergency petition. She has 60 days to determine her late husband's worth.

A probate court named Mechelle McNair and her sons, Tyler, 11, and Trenton, 6, as the heirs to the unvalued estate, according to newspaper the Tennessean.

But McNair also seems to have two older sons, born out of wedlock to another woman -- Steven L. McNair Jr., a high-school senior and Steven O'Brien Koran McNair, 15.

For now, however, there is no proof of paternity for the two older boys. McNair was reportedly paying $500 a month in child support of the 15-year-old boy.

Though neither of the older children has yet claimed inheritance, "I am sure that in due course there will be a discussion with everyone who has an interest in the estate," David Callahan, Mechelle McNair's attorney, told the Tennessean. "At this point, there has not been any formal discussion."

James Brown's estate spent over two years in limbo following his death on Christmas Day 2006.

Brown's adult children claimed his widow Tomi Rae Hynie Brown was owed nothing because she was married to another man when she wed the singer in 2001.

Brown left behind an estate valued at $80-$100 million, though no number has been officially released, according to the AP. However, a sizable debt left the icon's legacy in jeopardy.

In May 2009, a South Carolina judge finally settled the dispute.

Fifty percent of the singer's estate went to a foundation to educate poor students, 25 percent went to his adult children and 25 percent went to Tomi, mother of Brown's young son James Brown II.

According to the AP, income from future royalties and the use of Brown's likeness will be the backbone of the estate's future worth.

The custody battle over Anna Nicole Smith's daughter Dannielynn that capped months of coverage following her death in 2007, was far from the final or most scandalous chapter in a years-long, multigenerational estate dispute.

In 1994, the then 26-year-old former Playboy Playmate married oil tycoon, J. Howard Marshall II, 89. Marshall died just 14 months after their wedding.

In his will, Marshall named his son E. Pierce Marshall his only heir. However, Smith claimed that Marshall had promised her a stake in his $1.6 billion estate when the couple wed.

In May 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that Smith could pursue a share of the estate in federal court, reversing a prior decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that held the case belonged in state probate court.

But before she could return to court, Smith died Feb. 8, 2007 of a drug overdose. Her passing came just five months after the death of her 20-year-old son and only named heir.

The model-turned-reality star was survived, however, by a then 5-month-old daughter Dannielynn.

In March 2008, Dannielynn was named sole inheritor to Smith's estate with Dannielynn's father, Larry Birkhead, and Smith's longtime lawyer Howard K. Stern named as co-trustees. The toddler could inherit as much as $484 million from Marshall's estate.

With the two original claimants to Marshall's fortune -- Smith and E. Pierce Marshall -- now dead, the fight for the fortune continues with their descendants.

Lawyers for E. Pierce Marshall's estate, managed by his wife, and 2.5-year-old Dannielynn are back in court.

The lawsuit is against the estate of E. Pierce Marshall. Marshall inherited his father's estate in 2001 before he died.

A federal appeals court in Seattle will determine whether the probate court ruling, stating that Smith was not entitled to a portion of the estate, can be thrown out.

The Jimi Hendrix estate, valued at over $80 million, has torn his family apart, pitting the guitar legend's half brother against his adopted sister.

Because Hendrix died without a will in 1970, his estate was managed by a California attorney until 1995 when the late musician's father, Al Hendrix, sued for the rights to his son's music.

After Al's death in 2002 control of the estate was largely transferred to Janie Hendrix, his adopted daughter.

Al Hendrix divorced Jimi's mother in the late 1950's, and adopted Janie when he married her mother in 1968.

Jimi's half-brother, Leon, having been left out of the will, sued demanding he be written back into his father's will. He claimed his stepsister manipulated their father to put her in control of "Experience Hendrix," the company founded to license Hendrix memorabilia.

Legal battles ensued, Leon claimed Janie misused the estate, allegedly spending $1.7 million on her corporate credit card. Janie, in turn, accused Leon of drug abuse.

In the end, Superior Court Judge Jeffery Ramsdell ruled to uphold Al Hendrix's final will. Leon was excluded from the estate, but Janie was removed from her position as trustee.

The battle over Jerry Garcia's estate isn't as laid back as his music.

The late Grateful Dead front man's estate was left in disarray following his death. Several lawsuits followed his 1995 passing: one by his ex-wife, one on behalf of his daughter and one against the estate by its executor, his widow Deborah Koons Garcia.

Garcia's estate was estimated at $6 million to $7 million.

Just one year after his death, Garcia's ex-wife Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, sued his estate looking to reinstate her $5 million divorce settlement following the singer's 1995 death at a drug rehabilitation center, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Carolyn was eventually awarded the remainder of her agreement at the expense of the estate.

Garcia's daughter, Keelin Noel Garcia, sued his widow and several attorneys who were involved in doling out the dead legend's money for not properly taking care of her.

According to the Oakland Tribune, then 19-year-old Keelin claimed that Garcia's will called for her to be taken care of before any assets were divided amongst other beneficiaries. She reportedly accepted a settlement of over $1.25 million from the estate.

Most recently, Deborah Koons Garcia sued the limited liability corporation that handles his estate and includes her as a beneficiary, to obtain so-called "Garcia Tapes," which include unreleased music by the legendary musician. Koons Garcia claimed that the corporation was supposed to dissolve in 2005, and should no longer have control of the tapes, according to the Associated Press.

That case is still pending.

Rifts in the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family first began showing in July 2008, when two of the civil rights leader's children filed a lawsuit against their brother.

Bernice King and Martin Luther King III sued Dexter King alleging misconduct and "wrongfully appropriating" funds from their parents' estates.

According to the lawsuit, Dexter, the estate's executor, refused to provide his two siblings with financial records, contracts and other documents detailing the estate's operations.

"I'm disappointed that our personal family disagreement, as it relates to the family business, has evolved into being handled in a public legal forum," Dexter told reporters at the time.

The case is still pending.

King's children got into another dispute in May, when Dexter, the executor of his father's estate, brokered a deal with DreamWorks Studios to produce a movie about King's life.

Dexter failed to consult Bernice and Martin, who refused to approve the deal, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Last year, Dexter inked a $1.4 million book deal with Penguin Books and asked a judge to release personal documents belonging to his mother Coretta Scott King, whose estate is managed by Bernice. That case is also pending.

King's children have been criticized for trying to capitalize on their father's fame. The family's estate controls the exclusive rights to the use of slain civil rights leader's image and speeches.

The estate sold more than 10,000 of King's personal documents and manuscripts for $32 million to Atlanta in 2006. In 1999, the King children won a case against CBS for broadcasting King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech without payment.

When noted New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor died at age 105 in 2007, many turned their attention to her only son, Anthony Marshall, who had been accused for years of elder abuse.

Charged with grand larceny, possession of stolen property and forgery, and accused of looting his mother's $185 million estate, a trial against Marshall began in March.

If found guilty, the former ambassador could face 25 years in prison.

Marshall's son, Philip Marshall, accused his father of elder abuse and successfully filed a petition to replace Marshall with Annette de la Renta, wife of designer Oscar de la Renta, as Astor's guardian.

Astor, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, changed her will in 2004 to let her son control most of her estate.

A central focus of Marshall's trial, which is currently in progress, is whether Astor was mentally competent when she made changes to her will. On Monday, Astor's nurse testified that Astor had grown paranoid of her son, who she believed was trying to kill her.

When Michael Crichton, the author behind "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain," died in November 2008, he left behind four ex-wives, a 20-year-old daughter, a pregnant wife and a big legal mess.

The author, estimated to have $100 million in annual earnings, did not update his will to provide for the son he was expecting with wife Sherri Alexander. Under California law protecting children that are accidentally left out of wills, Crichton's son could inherit one-third of his father's fortune.

Alexander is the guardian of their son, John, and would thus control any inheritance he receives, which may violate the prenuptial agreement she previously signed. In April, the widow filed a petition in probate court to establish John's legal right to Crichton's fortune.

The case is still pending, with the next court hearing scheduled for Sept. 8.

Crichton's estate was placed into a family trust, according to Conde Nast Portfolio. Crichton's will intentionally omits his four ex-wives. Two of the author's novels will be publishedposthumously.

The estate of ice cream pioneer Tom Carvel has been a sticky mess since his death in 1990. The problems may have even started before Carvel passed away.

At the time of his death his estate was valued at $67 million, and included a 100-room motel and 40 properties linked to Carvel franchises, according to Conde Nast Portfolio.

The fighting, which continues today, principally arose between Mildred Archipane, Carvel's secretary of 38 years, and Robert Davis, his lawyer, and his niece, Pamela Carvel. Pamela Carvel alleges that Archipane and Davis locked-out her aunt, Tom Carvel's wife, Agnes, when they took control of Tom's business and personal finances when he died.

In over 18 years of legal wrangling, more than 40 lawyers have been involved in the case, and about $28 million has been drained from the estate to pay legal fees. In 2007, Pamela Carvel called for her uncle's body to be exhumed, alleging homicide, which she believes Archipane and Davis may have had a hand in. The body was never exhumed.

The battle over the estate continues; despite mounting legal fees and an increasingly unsure finally tally of Carvel's total estate.

Marlon Brando, who was thought by some to be virtually penniless at the time of his death in 2004, left behind a sizable estate: over $21 million.

The Brando estate has gone through legal battles, both as a plaintiff and as a defendant.

Surprisingly, despite having eight children with four different wives, little tension has arisen over who gets how much money.

However, a suit was filed by Brando's former business manager in April 2005 for sexual harassment and unlawful termination, as she was removed from Brando's will as an executor just 12 days before his death.

In another challenge to the executors of Brando's will, his personal assistant, Angela Borlaza, successfully sued after she was kicked out of the home that Brando had purchased for her prior to his death. Borlaza settled her suit against the estate, which claimed that the executors, Mike Medavoy and Larry J. Dressler, used Brando's diminished capacity to get him to sign over control, for $125,000.

However, the Brando estate has been on the other side of the courtroom on occasion, protecting the trademark that is now the Brando name.

In April 2009, representatives of Brando's estate and trust filed a lawsuit against the owners of Broadcast Center Apartments in Los Angeles for illegally using the Brando name. The apartment complex advertised apartments named "The Brando," "The Brando Den," and "The Brando Loft" without permission from Brando Enterprises, a business partnership among the executors of the actor's estate that manages the Brando brand.

The next hearing will take place on August 5, 2009.

The New York Times reported that 26 legal cases had been opened regarding the illegal use of the late actor's name.

This story was updated July 29, 2009.