The Unfitting Legacy of John Denver

John Denver singer-songwriter, some time actor, activist and humanitarian was killed when his experimental plane, crashed into Monterey Bay, California in October 1997. His estate was worth $19 million. He died without a Will

As Denver died in California, distribution of his intestate estate was subject to California law. Denver was not married at the time of his death therefore his children inherited all community and separate property. Under Californian law songs created during a marriage are considered community property, therefore if he were married the copyright in those songs created during the marriage would go to his spouse.

Denver donated his time to a great many charitable causes. He was a board member of the National Space Institute, the Cousteau Society, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). It seems strange that he wouldn’t have provided for these causes at the time of his death , however as he didn’t leave a Will then none of these causes benefited from gifts from his estate.

Denver was a noted environmentalist who had purchased property in Colorado with the intention of preserving it forever as a wildlife sanctuary and open space, however this land has now been sold,  which may not have happened if it had been left with this specific environmental purpose stipulated in a Will.

A California judge appointed Denver’s ex-wife Annie the administrator of the estate. His assets were divided between his 2 Adult children from his marriage to Annie with his 8 year old daughter Jesse Belle from his second marriage having her share placed in trust.

Although Denver did not have a Will he had established trusts worth $7 million each for his mother, father, ex-wife Annie and for each of his 3 children when they were born. Due to their acrimonious divorce he did not set up a trust for his second ex-wife Cassandra. In most cases it is much easier to create a Will than it is to establish a trust, and in Denver’s case it would have saved his family time and money.

The Californian Probate Court took 6 years to finalise Denver’s estate. The Internal Revenue Service argued the value of the estate was understated by $2.5 million, and therefore owed about $1.5 million in back taxes. Similarly the IRS believed Denver’s record label, and management company were worth about twice the value estimated by the estate. These disputes were settled with the estate receiving a $600,000 tax return some years later as the IRS had over estimated the value of the assets and the tax owed.

Many of the problems that Denver’s family had in relation to his estate could have been reduced if he had left a Will. Not only did they have to grieve for the sudden loss of a Father, Brother, and Friend, but they had to deal with the additional costs and stress of intestacy.

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