Estate Values Grow Beyond the Grave – The Marlon Brando Example

The importance of selecting a trustee to manage a trust or otherwise handle the affairs of an estate is hard to underestimate. There is a misconception that this task is always a “one-time” affair, with the individual (or individuals) taking care of various paperwork details after a death, and then being done. That is often not the case. Depending on the circumstances of one’s estate planning, the role of a trustee or others involved in these matters can last for years–or even decades.

One situation where that is vividly displayed is with celebrity estates–or those with extensive intellectual property rights. For example, the Hollywood Reporter discussed a legal fight this week involving Madonna and the estate of Marlon Brando. The disagreement stems from royalties that the estate claims it is owed after Madonna used images of Marlon Brando during her concerts. The images are a staple of Madonna’s performance of the song “Vogue” in which the lyrics include Brando’s name.

According to the story, Madonna planned to pay $3,750 to the estate every time that the image was used (once per concert). This fee was the same paid to the estate of a few other celebrities mentioned in the act–James Dean, Greta Garbo, and more.

However, shortly before the start of her latest tour, there was a disagreement–the company managing the Brando estate allegedly wanted to increase the fee to $20,000. A lawsuit was filed by the company representing the singer’s interests, seeking to clarify the issue. A breach of contract claims was made. In addition, the Brando estate is claiming that the actor’s image was exploited in at least 90 previous concert performances without any royalties being paid.

As this one example emphasizes, certain estates will continue to make money even after one’s passing. Celebrities are the obvious example, as many are paid for all uses of their image. But it is not just celebrities. Many pieces of intellectual property will continue to rake in income even after the original owner of the asset passes away. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks are not reserved only to famous singers, actors, and athletes. Many community members have the same underlying issues to deal with when conducting their long-planning.

For example, many business owners may own a stake in certain programs or technologies that are used by others. Perhaps they receive a royalty or licensing fee each time that asset is used by another. In those cases, the estate’s value will continue to increase even after one’s death. In may not be as simple as divvying everything up and moving on. Long-term management may be necessary. These details must be considered when meeting with lawyers and accountants to discuss these issues.

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