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Potential Heirs Keep Coming Out of the Woodwork!

When you create an Estate Plan, you decide who receives your assets after you die.  If you don’t, the laws of the state you live in determine who gets what.  But what happens when those laws aren’t too clear and there is A LOT of money at stake?  Chaos, Mayhem, and Foolishness that is what…and the Prince estate is experiencing this in full force.

Prince’s estate – reported to be worth as much as $300 million dollars before taxes – is now tied up in the early stages of a long battle over who really are his heirs. I know what you are thinking; still? Leslie, didn’t I read in this very newsletter last year that the judge already resolved this months ago?  Well initially it appeared so…  

Let’s Recap:  Prince was found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park estate last April. In June, the Medical Examiner’s Office announced the musician died of an accidental opioid overdose.

Prince’s failure to create an estate plan has been well-publicized (you couldn’t open a news feed without encountering an article stating that Prince had died without even a Will) so the disposition of his estate will be based on Minnesota inheritance laws.

Herein lies the problem. Dozens of people have come forward claiming to be Prince’s son, daughter, or other relative.  In initial court filings, Prince’s sister identified herself and five half-siblings as Prince’s heirs. Immediately after, four more people contacted the court claiming to have blood relationships with Prince.

Prince’s Family Tree

These individuals include a woman claiming to be the daughter of Prince’s half-sister, the daughter and granddaughter of a man who claimed during his lifetime to have been Prince’s half-brother and Carlin Q. Williams, an inmate in federal prison claiming to be Prince’s son. The court has established a protocol requiring anyone claiming to be a blood relative to complete a rigorous questionnaire under oath, potentially followed by DNA testing.  The DNA did not support them, and the Judge Kevin Eide denied their claims last year.

So what is the problem now? Two more claimed relatives, a niece and grand-niece, have come forward.   In previous legal filings, Brianna Nelson claimed to be the daughter of Prince’s reported half-brother Duane Nelson Sr., who died in 2011. Duane Sr. also had a son, Duane Jr., who died in 2005 and left behind a daughter, Victoria. Genetic testing has determined that Brianna and Victoria Nelson are not blood relatives of Prince, as their father was not a genetic son of Prince’s father, John L. Nelson.  But according to the court documents, Brianna and Victoria’s counsel argued that their father was raised as a son of John Nelson and brother of Prince.

The late Prince

Duane Nelson Sr. also allegedly had another son: Corey Simmons.  The judge also dismissed Simmons’ heirship claims but, is allowing Simmons time to provide evidence that, as his attorney has asserted in the past, John Nelson had plans to adopt Duane Nelson Sr., which could potentially position him for heirship.

So this legal battle – which is just getting started – comes down to what “brother” or “family” really means.  More specifically, how many different ways can you determine a parent-child relationship?It doesn’t seem like the concept should be difficult, right?  (Litigators you can all start laughing now…)

Can Minnesota’s intestate laws really be that unclear?  Oh my friends, if there is one thing I learned as a practicing attorney and (as a former engineer) had a hard time adapting to, is that the “law” is rarely anything but unclear!

Minnesota law recognizes a non-genetically related brother (who was never adopted, and not born of assistive technology) as a valid heir in certain circumstances.  Duane J. Nelson’s descendants claim that a brother is still a brother, even without the genetic relationship, as long as the man and the father treated each other as parent and child.  Prince’s recognized heirs argue instead that the laws are limited to the defined categories of genetic relationship, adoption, and births created by assistive technology.

The laws do list the specific circumstances when a parent-child relationship is clearly recognized, but leave just enough wiggle room with the language that the door might be open to establishing other parent-child relationships.  The statutes do not outright state that no other parent-child relationship can create a basis for heirship in an intestate case.  But they also do not state that other types of relationships can qualify.

If the law is interpreted to allow other parent-child relationships, thereby opening the door to Nelson’s descendants, then the battle will focus on whether Duane Nelson’s relationship with Prince’s father was close enough to count.  That will turn on the testimony of dozens of witnesses and perhaps thousands of pages of documentary evidence.  How many of Nelson’s basketball games did Prince’s father attend?  What did he say to his friends and relatives?  Who paid for what, when, and why? What if your father called the man his son and was listed on his birth certificate as the dad, even though, biologically-speaking, he wasn’t?  And then what happens if they never lived together as parent and child, and the parent in question never supported the man financially, even though they called each other father and son?

Prince in concert

The only thing that is clear is that the Minnesota legal system will be dealing with lots of Prince craziness for years to come.  Prince was recently ranked by Forbes as the #5 top-earning dead celebrity, bringing in $25 million and selling more albums than any other deceased musician in the last year.   And those in charge of managing his estate have already turned his home into a museum and are reportedly shopping for a buyer for Prince’s secret vault of unreleased music for $35 million – not to mention a planned greatest-hits album in the works.  With this much money involved, you can bet that the recognized heirs and potential heirs won’t stop fighting anytime soon.

In November of last year Judge Eide ordered that “Brianna Nelson and Victoria Nelson are excluded as heirs” of Prince’s estate.  The judge decided that there is no case law in Minnesota that establishes a parent-child relationship for intestacy purposes where there was a no genetic relationship but the parties to the relationship held themselves out to be parent and child.

The appeal is in the works to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.  After that, even if they lose again, with the amount of money in question, I am sure another appeal will be filed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.  In other words, the question of what the Minnesota intestate laws really mean won’t be decided for a period of years.