Family Feud Forever: Dr. King’s Family Squabbles Continue

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left behind a legacy of peace and understanding, but he may have been surprised by the legacy that his estate is forging. Last Friday, a Fulton County Superior Court Judge declined to make a ruling in a dispute over two items left behind by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize. Fox News reports that the case over these two items is likely to go to trial, with King’s estate, controlled by his two sons, against their sister, Bernice. This is only one of many lawsuits that have crept up in years past over the legacy of Dr. King.

Managing Estate Assets and Legacies

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s estate is not technically what many would consider an estate in the traditional sense. It is not a probate estate, with his assets being liquidated according to his will. Rather, Dr. King’s estate is the for-profit Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc. with his three surviving children being the sole shareholders and directors. As the sole shareholders and directors, his three children control Dr. King’s name, image, likeness and his possessions.

Central to the current controversy is a 1995 agreement that all of King’s heirs would return any of King’s personal property to the estate. The problem? No list of personal property was ever created and submitted pursuant to a 2009 court order which may have invalidated the agreement, leaving the fate of much of King’s personal property uncertain.

Lessons Learned

Despite the fact that the King estate is not technically a traditional probate estate, it nonetheless provides a great example of common problems that estate planners seek to minimize with careful planning. Chief among these issues is the role of the estate planner in minimizing contests and fights amongst the estate over estate assets and the deceased’s wishes.

In a well-planned estate, there should be no question of what assets are in and out of an estate. It is impossible to manage an estate without knowing the full extent of the estate’s property. A well planned estate also does not open up the estate to infighting by leaving no clear chosen person of who should have the final say over where the assets go. By leaving 3 people in charge of Dr. King’s estate with three highly litigious children, it is almost guaranteed that one of them will always be contesting the decisions of the other two.

Furthermore, with a highly public figure like Dr. King, preservation of his image and legacy is of utmost importance. In spite of this goal, Dr. King’s estate in recent years has become more closely related with the antics of his children rather than the work of his life. This was especially obvious when Dr. King’s two sons sued the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which was set up by their mother Coretta Scott King, for using Dr. King’s name, likeness and memorabilia.

Dr. King passed nearly 50 years ago and although his death was sudden, there is little doubt that he would have wished his legacy to focus on the positive social change he and others like him worked hard to bring about. Unfortunately his legacy also serves to provide others with a harsh lesson of what happens to a poorly administered estate and squabbling family members.

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