Although civil-rights icon Rosa Parks passed away leaving behind a modest estate, there are millions at stake in her estate’s upcoming will-contest jury trial.  When Ms. Parks passed away, her most valuable asset was not her bank account — it was the future marketing rights to her name and likeness.  An excerpt from Forbe’s list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities for 2006 gives a sense of how high the economic stakes in the Parks litigation could be:

The 13 icons on our sixth annual Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list collectively earned $247 million in the last 12 months. Their estates continue to make money by inking deals involving both their work and the rights to use their name and likenesses on merchandise and marketing campaigns. To land on this year’s list, a star needed to make at least $7 million between October 2005 and October 2006.

As reported here in Philip Bernstein’s New York Probate Litigation Blog Parks died in October 2005, leaving virtually all of her assets under a 1998 will to the nonprofit Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she founded in 1987 with her longtime friend and caregiver, Elaine Steele. Steele, who has served as an officer of the institute, was granted power of attorney over Parks in 1998, the same year Parks’ will was signed.  The will-contest goes to trial on February 19, 2007, before a six-member jury in Wayne County Probate Court, although rumors of a pre-trial settlement have surfaced in the past (see here).

For the latest developments in this case, here’s an excerpt from Millions at stake in name of Parks:

The ongoing battle over Rosa Parks’ estate set to play out in a Wayne County courtroom next month will have more to do with the marketing rights to her likeness and image than any money the civil rights icon left when she died.

Even if Parks’ estate isn’t worth the millions some have claimed, experts say, her name and image could be worth millions for decades to come.

"Maybe tens of millions," said Charles L. Sharp, a marketing professor at the University of Louisville, noting that former boxing great Muhammad Ali last year sold most of the rights to his name and likeness for $50 million to be used on such products as snack food.

. . . . .

Since her death, Parks’ likeness has appeared in national Chevrolet and Apple Computer ads. Not to mention the souvenirs and other memorabilia being sold around metro Detroit and over the Internet.

Parks’ only family, 13 nieces and nephews, contested their aunt’s will in November 2005, claiming that Steele bamboozled Parks, who suffered from dementia, into signing a will that cut them out of any decision-making about how Parks’ likeness would be used and any profit from the licensing of her name and image.

. . . . .

Civil rights activists and others will closely watch the outcome because it could determine how the country ultimately remembers one of its greatest heroes of the struggle for racial equality.

"If this can happen to someone of her stature, then it can happen to anyone," said nephew William McCauley, 48, of Detroit, who serves as the family spokesman. "We just believe that our aunt was taken advantage of. … The way her will read, she didn’t care about her family, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth."