It’s hard to imagine that someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. would end up being the focus of almost endless court battles. After all, Dr. King was the unfaltering champion of peaceful resistance during his quest for full and equal civil rights for all Americans. He was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. His life, like his name, has now passed into legend, one that is now remembered as a national holiday. Yet even someone like Dr. King may find their legacy tarnished with ongoing family legal fights.
Most of us know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His sudden and tragic death had a profound impact on those who considered him a leader in their fight for change. But although the enigmatic leader left behind a wife and four children, he died without leaving behind a Will. Without an appointed trustee or personal representative to manage his estate, Dr. King’s assets were divided by the Probate Court in Fulton County, Georgia. At that time, his net worth was less than $6,000 (about $44,000 today). He had given his prize money and almost all of his wealth to help the civil rights movement.
Although he may not have had a personal fortune, Dr. King left behind a lifetime of sermons, speeches, and personal possessions that have enormous historical value. After his death, his wife Coretta Scott King created the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to Dr. King’s work and memory. In Atlanta, Georgia, the Center houses Dr. King’s marble tomb, photographs, and some of his prized personal possessions, including his Nobel Peace Prize medal and his own Bible. This same bible was used to swear in President Obama for his second term in 2013.
But turmoil and legal disputes have caused significant rifts between Dr. King’s children, some of whom want to monetize their father’s legacy for profit. Bernice King, who is now head of the nonprofit center, has refused repeated demands from her brother, Dexter, to give him her father’s prized possessions. She controls her late mother’s estate, which Bernice has argued includes her father’s Nobel medal. Dr. King supposedly gave it to Coretta before his death. Bernice has also claimed that all of her father’s possessions, like Dr. King’s legacy, belong to the people and should remain under the control of the nonprofit Center.
In response, Dexter has filed a series of lawsuits seeking to terminate the Center’s use of his father’s intellectual and physical property. As the chief executive of the for-profit Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., Dexter, and his supporters seek to sell his father’s prized possessions and copyright the use of his now-famous speeches and image. Despite being accused of acting as poor stewards of their father’s estate and legacy, the fighting continues today.
Over the last fifty-plus years since Dr. King’s death, sibling disagreements and expensive court battles have caused lasting damage to the King family. These are the kinds of things that estate planning is designed to prevent. Regardless of the size of the estate, estate planning can help keep the peace by appointing trustees and other decision-makers. An estate plan, including a Will, would likely have prevented the decades of court battles that now threaten to overshadow the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.