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.

29 Replies to “The Unfitting Legacy of John Denver”

  1. Why did he need a will? He was only 53! John Denver was a great guy, don’t try to make him out as someone he was not!

    1. He was a great guy and had great plans to create wilderness areas in his adopted state of Colorado- however by dying without a Will his plans went unfulfilled. A Will allows you to direct how your estate is distributed

    2. There’s a certain age you need to be to have a will over 50 with millions of dollars and no will that’s weird

    3. Everyone needs a will, even young people. Accidents happen. If you have minor children, and you do not leave a Will, the Courts can appoint anyone to care for them. John Denver was an amazing human being. His death was a great.loss to the world.

    4. A person as young as John was would probably not have thought about a will at the time. I know I didn’t have a will until I was almost 60 years of age. I’m sure he would have left one if he had been a little older and had the time to think about the future of his children. He was taken away too soon. I have cd’s of his music and still love to hear his voice to this day.

    5. Everyone needs a will.

      You can die at any time – get hit by a bus, be in an auto accident, choke on a hamburger. You have to make your final wishes known since no one can read your mind: do you want to be cremated? Kept on life support? Open or closed casket? Buried beside family or in a different place entirely? Donate your organs?

      If you have kids, you are remiss in not preparing a will. Someone is stuck with your final expenses and without a will, it can be whoever the court decides it should be – not what YOU want.

    6. You can get hit by a bus at 23. Will’s should have been written no later than when the kids arrived.

    7. we all need wills- young or not- especially when you have children- that is when you for sure need it. and if you have the estate he had- of course he needed it- he was probably a good guy but was not advised well by his management-

  2. I had read the Wall Street Journal about 10 years ago The article was on Bernie Maddoff the man in Palm Beach Florida who ran a scam business with people investing their money with him They listed the top 10 losers John Denver Enterprizes was listed #4 in losing the most money four hundred and twenty nine million dollars

    1. The John Denver Concerts and John Denver Enterprises investments were linked to the companies’ pension funds & those companies were managed by Harold Thau, JD’s friend and business partner. Probably well after his death.

      1. Sorry, Paul…Iris is correct. Just do a search for “John Denver Enterprises and Bernie Madoff” and all sorts of articles on the subject from 2009 will pop up. Being misinformed can work both ways.

  3. Most artists make poor accountants- and likewise . . . the reverse. John was a artistic dreamer. I’m sure he had every intention to “getting around to it”. . . . very sad he is now gone. Artists need to have pea-counters, as close associates: ones that they can love respect and trust.

  4. Really sad, especially she he liked to fly, someone should have given him better advice. No one wants to admit they’re going to die, but better to have things in place.

  5. John had a voice like crystal clear water…pure & beautiful
    In concerts it was as if he was singing just to you…
    The days of life are precious Spend them wisely
    Hob Richmond VA

  6. I loved JohnDenver so very much his music changed me and the way I thought about so many things in this world I still cry when I listen to his music knowing he will never be able to play them on his guitar or sing them to audiences on a stage ,Iwish I could have met him or saw him in concert just once I will love and remember hi forever

    1. I was so lucky living in the D.C. area . My first concert was in 1975. And the last one on Dec. 1996. At Constitution Hall. In 1990. I just was so lucky to get front seats at Wolf Trap VA or Merriweather MD I cannot remember which. I had 5 months to make a personal cross stitch wall hanging for his new baby Jessie Belle. As he and Cassandra were leaving the stage for intermission I called his name and he stopped, turned around and walked over to me. He graciously accepted my wrapped gift thanking me. When he and his wife returned to the stage he mouthed “Thank you.” to me He would look towards me from time to time until the second half was finished. She on the other hand, completely snubbed me the entire rest of the show. Left my business card inside the package and received a pleasent thank note via their assistant a short time later. He was a gifted artist just not good with keeping up with the dull boring mundane aspects of life like making a will, filling out medical powers.of attorney etc. He had trusts made up his lawyers should have educated and assisted him since things of that nature were not his strong suit.
      Thank goodness for Annie given all he put her through. ,

  7. I saw a side of John that the public who knew him as John Denver never knew. As fellow art and architecture students at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas back in the early 60s, we knew him as John Duetchendorf, never as John Denver. Our labs were 5 hours long, we would have long breaks in the outdoor plaza. John would always have his guitar or banjo handy and we’d have sing-a-longs, long discussions about climate warming and Vietnam war issues. We noticed that very often he would head to California for the weekends.
    After the second year, he left for California…for good. Only then, did we learn that he was John Denver, had been writing music for Peter, Paul and Mary as well as many other well-known popular groups for quite some time, and entertaining on his own while out there. He never told anyone this; John seemed rather shy and certainly not a name-dropper!

    We knew John as solid, down to earth, soooo funny, genuinely friendly, showed great artistic talent, had a beautiful smile and a beautiful voice. I was so very sad to learn years later of his untimely death. The gifts of his music will live forever….

    From a fellow student that feels lucky to have known him, even if so ever briefly,
    Linda McCauley

  8. He had set up a $7 mil trust for each of the children, Annie, his mother (Emma), and his father (Dutch). I would guess he felt at that time a Will wasn’t necessary?
    A lot of us don’t think anything will happen to us at that age.

  9. I was hooked on John Denver and his music, when I first heard him on TV in the UK. I am sure like any person he had his plus and minus points, but from what I have read of those who claim to have known him, he was a good guy and one who cared. One thing is irrefutable he was an amazing musician and song writer. I for one will miss his performances and often wonder what he still had to give his followers. But all said and done he has left a wonderful library of his music to enjoy. RIP John.

  10. I drew up a will at 50 when my friends started dropping like flies. I’m 65 now and feel much better knowing my children will not have to deal with the BS that comes from intestesy.

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