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Michael Jackson: Probate Dispute Lessons Learned

The biggest probate dispute lesson to learn from the death of Michael Jackson is that you never know when your time on earth will end, and it is best to have a thorough and up to date estate plan in place at all times that will anticipate and avoid as many problems as you can.  You will need to have a complete and current written will that addresses all of the relevant issues that may arise upon death.


The two biggest legal issues so far regarding Mr. Jackson’s death are who will be in charge of the estate (who will serve as executor) and who will be in charge of his minor children (who will be the guardian).


Mr. Jackson’s will apparently names two people to serve as co executors of his estate.  The two people are two of Mr. Jackson’s attorneys, and neither of them are members of his family.  Mr. Jackson’s mother, who was not one of the two people named, applied to the court to be named executor.  Her request was denied by the court, which is not a surprise.  Normally, the executor named in the will by the deceased will be appointed by the court unless the executor is disqualified for some reason (usually conviction of a crime, mental incapacity, or the like).  The fact that someone else might be a closer relative to the deceased or that someone else might be a better business manager than the person chosen is not usually relevant.  As long as the person chosen meets the basic and minimal qualifications, the courts will usually honor the choice made by the deceased person as expressed in their will.


The guardianship for the children issue is more clouded because Mr. Jackson had three children by two different women.  The mother of the two older children has expressed a desire to have guardianship custody of those two children.  As the biological mother, she has rights as a parent, just as Mr. Jackson had parental rights while he was alive.  For the time being, Mr. Jackson’s mother (the grandmother of the children) has been appointed temporary guardian. 


In the short run, the courts usually look to try to provide as much stability as possible for the children, as they have obviously been traumatized enough by their father’s unexpected death.  The grandmother seems more involved in their lives on a regular basis and is in the best position to provide interim stability.  In the longer run, the courts may not view the 79 year old grandmother as the best option, and the biological mother of the children could well be given expanded rights, if not full custody. 


Mr. Jackson’s will made designated his mother as the guardian, with Diana Ross as an alternate in the event that his mother is unable to serve.  It will be interesting to see what rights the court may grant to the biological mother as the case proceeds.


It is important that parents of children under the age of 18 include such provisions in their will so that their wishes can be made known and taken into consideration after death.

Cowles & Thompson