The Battle Over Tom Petty's Estate
“Our world was turned upside down, and it did some damage,” says Dana Petty. “We got through it somehow. . . . But I don’t recommend it to anyone.”
Tom Petty died at the age of 66 on October 2, 2017. Almost three years after his death, his wife and daughters have finally settled the battle over who will manage a business entity containing his intellectual property rights, including the marketing rights to his name and image, royalties, and artistic creations. Sadly, the estate battle delayed the release of Petty's commemorative album, Wildflowers.
The Devil is in the Details
Perhaps usurprisingly, the fight centered around control of a valuable asset. Although Petty created a living trust prior to his death, the Thomas Early Petty Living Trust, his estate plan left crucial actions undone. Wife, Dana Petty, stated to Rolling Stone, “Tom’s will wasn’t written very well, to be honest.” “It was very confusing, and it got ugly." According to Forbes, the trust appointed his wife as sole trustee and instructed her to establish a new limited liability company (LLC) for his intellectual property after his death. The Trust further provided that Dana, and Tom's daughters from his prior marriage, Adria and Annakim "shall be entitled to participate equally in the management of the Artistic Property Entity."
The daughters claimed the Trust contained a six-month time limit for transfer of the intellectual property rights to the LLC. When more than six months passed and the intellectual property rights were allegedly not transferred to an LLC, Petty's daughters sued Dana Petty. Dana countersued. At the heart of the lawsuit was the issue of who would control the LLC containing the intellectual property and what did "participate equally" in management of the LLC mean? Petty's widow and daughters argued over whether "participate equally" in the management of the LLC meant each family member had one vote or something else.
In hindsight, it may have been better for Petty to establish the LLC before he died and spell out voting arrangements in an operating agreement for the LLC. Leaving these details up to grieving family members later was risky. When grief, blended familles, and the legal system collide, common sense can go out the window. In a blended family, the decedent frequently is the only link between unrelated strangers. When the link is broken by death, it may be hard for the survivors to trust each other and work together to resolve conflicts. Unfortunately, sometimes lawyers for a party may look for ways to create confusion rather than certainty. The solution - don't leave crucial details undone. The devil is in the details. To avoid estate battles, take care of important details of your estate plan before you go!