Michael A. Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times published an excellent article reporting on the probate and trust litigation swirling around Ray Charles’ $75+ million estate: Ray Charles’ children battle over his legacy. This estate is so discombobulated you could probably pick it apart from an estate planning perspective in a dozen different ways. Three points that jumped out at me:
- Talking to your heirs about your estate plan can sometimes be a VERY bad idea.
- Picking the wrong fiduciary to be in charge of your estate can turn low level, simmering resentments that would otherwise simply blow over into World War III.
- If an estate plan involves the creation of a private charitable foundation, governance issues are doubly important.
1. Talking to your heirs about your estate plan can sometimes be a VERY bad idea.
When estate planners write about parents discussing their estate plans with their children, it’s almost always assumed to be a good idea [click here for example]. Well, sometimes it’s a lousy idea, as the Ray Charles estate is learning. If estate litigation is even a remote possibility, family discussions about mom and dad’s estate plan can make a difficult situation worse.
Shortly before Christmas 2002, Ray Charles called a meeting of his 12 children at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. Ten of them, ranging in age from 16 to 50 — with 10 mothers among them — listened as their father told them he was mortally ill and outlined what they could expect from his fortune.
Most of Charles’ assets would be left to his charitable foundation. But $500,000 had been placed in trusts for each of the children to be paid out over the next five years, according to people at the meeting and a trust document.
Yet Charles’ description left so much to the imagination that some of the children came away with the impression that he meant to leave them $1 million each. Charles also hinted that there would be more for them "down the line," which some interpreted to mean they would inherit the right to license his name and likeness for profit.
The confusion and contention that resulted from that family gathering, the only time so many of the children met with their father as a group, helps explain what has happened since. Charles exercised iron control over his music and recordings, but his legacy is in disarray, knotted up in legal disputes between the estate’s management and his family members, according to interviews, court documents and correspondence from the California attorney general’s office.
2. Picking the wrong fiduciary to be in charge of your estate can turn low level, simmering resentments that would otherwise simply blow over into World War III.
As I’ve written before [click here], picking the right person or bank/trust company to be in charge of your probate estate or trust may be the single most important estate planning decision you make . . . especially if your estate is large or especially complex. Ray Charles picked his long-time business manager, Joe Adams, to be the one fiduciary in charge of every aspect of his estate. After reading the following excerpts from the LA Times piece ask yourself if Adams is the right man for the job:
That executive, Joe Adams, is the target of the family’s complaints. Adams signed on as Charles’ manager in 1961. Toward the end of the artist’s life, Adams was perceived by Charles’ children and others close to him as controlling access to the star.
After Charles’ death, Adams ended up with virtually unchallenged power over the estate. He was head of Ray Charles Enterprises, director of the foundation and trustee of the children’s trusts. In some cases, co-officers appointed by Charles departed their roles while Adams remained.
. . . . .
Adams has kept the children and other family members from participating in ceremonies honoring their father, they say, even his funeral.
Adams interrupted a private family service at the Angelus Funeral Home in Los Angeles, attempted to eject some of the participants and ordered the casket removed from the chapel, according to several people who were there.
"The biggest issue with me is disrespect for the family and kids," the Rev. Robert Robinson, one of Charles’ sons, said in an interview. "If you respect a man and his work, then you respect his kids. His blood is flowing through our veins."
. . . . .
In 1997, Charles decided he needed a fresh approach to his career and attempted to replace Adams with Jean-Pierre Grosz, a 50-year-old French artists manager who had become a close friend. Charles, however, apologetically sent Grosz home to Paris after Adams refused to relinquish his office in Charles’ Washington Boulevard studio, according to the French manager.
3. If an estate plan involves the creation of a private charitable foundation, governance issues are doubly important.
Governance issues are especially important when it comes to private foundations because after the founder is dead, generally speaking no one other than the state attorney has standing to step in and make sure the foundation is being properly run. And just because it’s a charity don’t assume the sins of humanity are somehow banished from its hallowed halls, as reported by NY Times reporter Stephanie Strom in Report Sketches Crime Costing Billions: Theft From Charities. The following excerpt from the linked-to LA Times piece makes clear the Ray Charles private foundation may be many things, but a beacon of good governance it’s not:
In February 2006, Adams’ stewardship of the foundation was questioned by Deputy Atty. Gen. Wendi A. Horwitz. After learning that Adams was serving simultaneously as chairman, president and treasurer of the foundation — in violation of state law — she gave Adams 30 days to comply. He appointed a new treasurer and a few months later added a majority of independent outsiders to the board.
The attorney general’s office never took public action against the foundation. In December, Adams resigned as president of the foundation and of Ray Charles Enterprises. He was succeeded by Ivan Hoffman, a lawyer who had worked with the estate. However, a receptionist at Ray Charles Enterprises said last week that Hoffman was not currently its president. Hoffman and a company spokesman declined to comment.
Adams still exercises power at the organizations, the lawsuit filed by Den Bok alleges. It is unclear whether he still holds any formal titles. A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who succeeded Lockyer in 2006, had no comment.