There are several unusual factors at play in the drama that is unfolding surrounding Prince’s estate. This blog post discusses them and offers some tips so that you can hopefully avoid a similar situation.

First, the most unusual factor is that no will or trust has been found. What’s so unusual about this, you ask? Don’t numerous celebrities pass away without an estate plan in place? Sure, some do. But what makes this so unusual is that Prince is not some unsophisticated doofus; rather, Prince is quite familiar with legal disputes and has apparently had extensive dealings with attorneys over the years, especially with respect to copyright infringement actions (this CNET article remarks that Prince “has a long history of suing alleged copyright infringers.”). Therefore, the puzzling question is why did Prince not have an estate plan in place given his apparent sophistication with legal matters?

Having litigated numerous estate disputes where a missing will or trust did not surface until months after the passing of the testator/settlor, I think it’s quite possible that a will or trust could surface in the future. What is the lesson in all of this? First, most obviously: make sure that you have an estate plan in place. Second, make sure that it’s kept in a safe place where someone can find the originals (or at least a copy). I previously wrote a blog post discussing what to do when an original will is missing but a person locates a copy. If Prince had entrusted even a copy of his estate plan to one of his attorneys, a financial advisor, a business manager, etc., the administration of his estate could have proceeded much more smoothly than it currently is proceeding.

The second unusual factor is the claim by Prince’s sister – Tyka Nelson – via a petition with the Minnesota court, that Prince did not have any written estate plan. This claim was made a mere five days after Prince died. There is practically no way that Nelson could have conducted a good faith assessment in a mere five days as to whether Prince truly died intestate. I am sympathetic to why she made this claim: she wanted the court to appoint a special administrator for Prince’s estate so that his estate could conduct any needed business affairs with minimal disruption. But the result has been that the media have jumped all over this assertion and have treated it as fact.

In fact, we won’t know for weeks or potentially months whether Prince had a will and/or trust. The special administrator will need to conduct an exhaustive review of Prince’s residences, storage spaces, business offices, etc. to rule out the existence of a will and/or trust. This will definitely take some time. I’ve had many clients over the years remark to me that it was exhausting going through just a handful of boxes in their parents’ attics and basements searching for a will or trust. Can you imagine how many papers the special administrator will need to comb through for a wealthy celebrity?

The takeaway here is that when a relative dies, take a deep breath and don’t rush to any conclusions. It is not extremely unusual when a will or trust does not immediately surface. Relatives should conduct a cooperative, transparent, and above-board search of the decedent’s residence and other locations where the decedent could have maintained personal property. Many states provide for a waiting period for the qualification of an administrator (in order to avoid a race to the courthouse among prospective administrators seeking to obtain control and standing to gain an administrator’s fee). In Virginia, a party may not qualify as administrator within thirty days of the decedent’s death unless the person is the sole distributee or unless the person obtains written waivers of the right to qualify from all other competent distributees.

The third unusual factor with respect to Prince’s estate is the fact that family members have apparently held at least one meeting to discuss a division of his assets. According to this article, Nelson stormed out of a family meeting after Prince’s death, at which the family discussed the division of Prince’s assets. Pursuant to the article, Nelson stated that she believed that she was entitled to take more than her half-siblings, notwithstanding Minnesota’s intestacy scheme that provides otherwise. I found it amusing that Nelson apparently thought that she could talk her half-siblings into permitting her to take a larger share, despite what is provided for under Minnesota law (that would be a tall enough task even in a non-blended family context).

While we can find amusement in Nelson’s chutzpah, it is not unusual for some family members to try to hold meetings like that where they attempt to sweet-talk their relatives into dividing up an estate or distributing certain assets even though the will/trust or statutory intestacy scheme provides otherwise. To be clear: sometimes family meetings are appropriate, especially where wills or trusts specify that family members should endeavor to agreeably divide the decedent’s tangible personal property. But families court trouble when one family member seeks to remove personal property from the decedent’s residence despite what the terms of his estate plan may provide for. Unfortunately, there are times where family members essentially “raid” the decedent’s residence right after his passing and help themselves to jewelry, cash, and other valuables, and then not only refuse to return such to the executor/administrator, but even deny that they took such in the first place. I’ve litigated cases where unscrupulous relatives loaded up entire moving trucks at the decedents’ residences a day or two after they passed (despite detailed terms in the decedents’ trusts providing for the distribution of the tangible personal property).

Consequently, it is important for executors/administrators to move quickly upon the passing of the decedent and to secure his residence, personal property outside of the residence, etc. Frequently, this will mean calling a locksmith as soon as possible to change the locks on the residence to prevent relatives with keys from accessing it.

Stay tuned: if a will or trust surfaces for Prince, I’ll write a new blog post about it. Given what we’ve learned about Prince’s family in the last week or two, I would imagine that if a will or trust comes to light, there will be even more drama.