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Judge rescinds multimillion dollar contract with Prince's estate

Complications with high-value estates can make for ugly turns of events in courtroom battles. There's no exception just because the deceased is one of the most famous musicians of our time.

The musician Prince, who was fiercely in control of his artistic catalog while alive, somewhat curiously died without a will. In the absence of a will, an estate's administrators are generally required to try to maximize the value of that estate wherever possible.

However, administrators also have to be careful how they go about that process -- or they may accidentally dispose of something that's already owned by somebody else. In this case, the company sold the rights to much of Prince's music to Universal Music Group for a monumental sum -- $31 million.

Unfortunately, Universal's main rival, Warner Brothers, claims that it already owns a significant portion of what Universal was counting on getting, including the rights to the highly-influential album, "1999." The licensing to that album would have expired next year if Prince hadn't signed an additional agreement before his death extending the license with Warner Brothers.

Universal accused the estate's expert adviser, a music executive, of purposefully deceiving them in order to get the contract and using a confidentiality agreement to do it.

The judge made no ruling about the legitimacy of the additional agreement -- nor did he address the allegations of fraud against the expert adviser. Instead, he rescinded the contract (against the wishes of some of the heirs) because ongoing litigation over the issue would likely deplete the estate's overall value. Finding a new buyer for the reduced catalog may now become a problem -- the new buyer will have to take a chance on a lot of unpublished work of unknown value.

The judge's action further underscores the importance of leaving a will to direct how your assets are handled, especially if they have the potential to be worth more in the future. A lot of potential legal battles can be avoided by that simple method alone. In its absence, much of what you hope for your legacy, particularly if you're an artist of some sort, may be swallowed up.

If you hope to leave an artistic legacy behind, an attorney experienced in estate planning can help make it happen.

Source: The New York Times, "Prince Estate's $31 Million Distribution Deal Is Rescinded," Ben Sisario, July 13, 2017

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