Prince, his Vault & Intestacy

Prince died of an accidental overdose of painkillers in April 2016, leaving no will. Judge Eide of the Carver County District Court has declared that Prince’s six surviving siblings are his heirs because as John Nelson was Prince’s “presumptive father” under state parentage laws he was also Prince’s “genetic father” under state probate laws. Therefore Prince’s estate must pass to descendants of John Nelson and Mattie Shaw only and ruled out 29 other would be claimants.

Due to his untimely death and lack of estate planning Prince’s estate has been in the words of Judge Eide in a state of “personal and corporate mayhem.”

Prince’s vault held in two storage vaults at Paisley Park, his studio complex outside Minneapolis, has attained a near-mythic status. It reportedly contains thousands of songs and hundreds of hours of video and films— most of which was not cataloged. Following Prince’s death attention focused on the unreleased material.

Earlier this year “Purple Rain” was reissued including a bonus disc of unreleased material. However a conflict in Prince’s estate over a $31 million deal with Universal for music rights means that much of the vault may not see daylight for months or even years to come.

Prince’s estate  negotiated a deal estimated to be worth $31 million to give Universal global rights to Prince’s post-1995 catalog and U.S. rights to many of his earlier albums that he recorded for Warner Bros. Records.

However Judge Eide rescinded the deal after Universal accused the estate of fraudulent misrepresentation during negotiations and threatened a lawsuit if the company was not allowed to withdraw from the deal and get its money back.

Universal said that it learned after closing the deal that some of the rights it had paid for conflicted with those held by Warner, through a confidential deal that company signed with Prince in 2014. Under this agreement Warner Bros own the rights of Prince’s pre-1996 music until 2021 (Universal was led to believe it would be taking over such rights in 2018).

“Universal Music Group and the estate of Prince Rogers Nelson welcome the court’s approval of our amicable resolution to this matter,” the company said in a statement.

Judge Eide has allowed Universal’s lawyers to view the Warner contract, the trustee Bremer stated they acted in the best interests of the estate and that “all agreements and entertainment contracts were properly reviewed, authorized and approved by the court.”

Yet, even with the rescission, Universal still controls the rights to Prince’s worldwide publishing and merchandise outside the United States.

It is rare for a major deal like Universal’s to be canceled, however the allegations of mismanagement and deception on the part of estate representatives, who include longtime Prince lawyer and advisor to Bremer L. Londell McMillan lead the heirs to the estate to raise concerns about the estate’s pending deals, principally whether Universal’s deal would conflict with an existing agreement with Warner.

Similarly the heirs believe that the agreement was not in the best interests of the estate believing that they were entered into to ensure an extravagant stream of commission payments to the advisers. Mr. McMillan denied any wrongdoing and said that the Universal contract is valid.

Comerica Bank & Trust, which replaced Bremer as administrator of the estate the day after the deal was signed has asked Judge Eide to rescind the deal to avoid litigation, as it “cannot unequivocally assure” the court that the two contracts do not conflict.

Three of Prince’s half siblings Sharon, Norrine and John R. Nelson are upset that Comerica have recently removed the contents of Prince’s vault from his Paisley Park studio complex in Minnesota without their permission and shipped the materials to California. They have filed a motion to remove Comerica Bank & Trust as estate executor.

Comerica has said the company discussed the move with the heirs. They countered that the storage at Paisley Park had climate control systems that were insufficient to preserve audio and video material, and discovered mould and water damage on the materials, rusting film canisters, degrading film and evidence of water intrusion on walls and ceilings in the vault. They argued that due to these issues and security concerns now that Paisley Park is a museum that is open to the public, it would be in the estate’s “best interests” to have the contents shipped to Los Angeles for safe keeping.

The heirs are unhappy with Comerica as they believe it is not qualified to take the role and do not know the music estate business. The fact that Paisley Park housed the vault for over 40 years and if there was a need to repair it should have been a priority is a demonstration of Comerica’s incompetence, waste, mismanagement, lack of communication and disrespect. They believe that there are other banks that are more qualified and wish to work with them.

The Court appointed a special administrator to report by December 15 if someone should be held accountable for the cancellation of the Universal deal, and if the estate has a right to pursue a claim against any of the parties involved. The collapse of the Universal deal, and the doubt it cast over the rights, may depress the price.

It appears that there could be lengthy litigation; was there sufficient disclosure as to the knowledge of the existence, content and importance of the agreement with Warner Bros. Records when the Universal deal was approved.

McMillan is adamant that he discharged his duties properly and there was no need for a rescission. He claims Warner Bros. Records together with Prince negotiated the prior agreement before he passed, and there was clearly a loss of information somewhere down the line.

Although Prince’s death was untimely much of the ongoing difficulties would have been minimised had he created a Will. Although the rights to his music and image will become increasingly valuable over time even a simple will would have been better than no will at all.

 

 

 

 

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