When Michael Jackson died in 2009, he left behind a convoluted legacy that has presented issues for fans and tax collectors alike, and the legal repercussions are ongoing.
At the time of his death, Jackson’s reputation had suffered from allegations of child abuse, drug use and erratic behavior. The circumstances of his death, however, heightened fans’ sympathy for the tragic “King of Pop.” Because of this, Jackson’s estate is embroiled in a legal dispute with the IRS over the value of Jackson’s name and likeness.
In valuing Jackson’s estate for estate tax purposes, executors John Branca and John McClain valued Jackson’s name and likeness at only $2,105, citing his tarnished reputation. Not surprisingly, the IRS has taken issue with this low value, arguing that Jackson’s name and likeness should be valued at a whopping $434 million and assessing more than $700 million in taxes and penalties against the estate.
Further complicating the valuation of Jackson’s name and likeness is the post-mortem influx of revenue to the Jackson estate. As a result of the shrewd business decisions of Jackson’s executors, Jackson’s estate has flourished. The “This Is It” documentary of footage from the rehearsals for Jackson’s last scheduled tour grossed $290 million globally; Sony agreed to a $250 million deal to release 10 albums; two Cirque du Soleil tribute shows have gained over $360 million in box-office revenue; and the Sony Corp.’s acquisition of Jackson’s stake in Sony/ATV Music Publishing earned Jackson’s estate $750 million. These revenue streams have grown Jackson’s estate to record-breaking size.
The value of assets for estate tax purposes should be determined as of the date of death. The success of Jackson’s estate, however, calls into question the estate’s low valuation of Jackson’s name and likeness at that time. The IRS claims that each of the estate’s deals was foreseeable and should have been taken into account. Conversely, the estate argues that its success was a result of the business acumen of the executors, resuscitating the Jackson image despite Jackson’s estimated $400 million of debt and tarnished reputation.
The trial to determine whether Jackson’s estate owes estate taxes and the resulting penalties concluded in February 2017. In December 2017, the Tax Court determined that the IRS was barred from seeking the full amount of penalties initially sought because of failure to comply with certain procedural requirements. It remains to be seen how the Tax Court will value the estate and penalties, though the conclusion of this trial could have significant repercussions for how celebrities plan their estates.