Litigating the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Jerrold Bartholomew

Recent litigation over the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. provides an illustration of problems that can develop in the administration of a trust or estate and an opportunity to discuss ways to avoid disputes in estate and trust administration. In the case of the King family, Dexter King is president of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Corporation. This company controls the use of the image and property of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III have sued Dexter King, alleging that he obtained control of assets that were the property of the estate of Corretta Scott King. The lawsuit further alleges that Dexter has mishandled the property of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Corporation and that Dexter has refused to provide information to beneficiaries and shareholders regarding his activities. This litigation highlights several issues to consider in estate planning and administration.

First of all, it is not uncommon for there to be confusion over what exactly is estate property. What happens, for example, if Fred provides a $5,000.00 gift in his will to Joe and he also names Joe as a beneficiary on a savings account worth about $5,000.00? Should the savings account satisfy the gift in the will, or does Joe get an additional $5,000.00 from the estate? In the litigation over the King estates, there seems to have been confusion over what was part of Coretta Scott King’s estate (the probate assets) and what belonged to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Corporation (a non-probate asset). Any estate can be set up to avoid this kind of confusion and avoid misunderstandings between family members down the line by consolidating the estate to a trust.

A second issue presented in the King litigation involves the handling of personal property. Most wills give the personal representative direction to sell personal property and use the proceeds to pay estate obligations and make distributions to heirs. But in many cases, family members may disagree with the sale of personal property–either because the item has more sentimental value or, as in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s estate, the property is very valuable and the sale price is subject to second-guessing. The reports have insinuated that Dexter King’s decision to sell substantial property of the corporation for $30 million may not have been supported by his siblings. There is also the possibility that the sale was below fair market value. Indeed, rather than sell at a public auction with Sotheby’s, and potentially obtain a better price, the corporation’s property was sold privately at the eleventh hour. Disposition of assets by public auction is clearly a safer route for fiduciaries. Beneficiaries who believe the property more valuable than the asking price have the opportunity to purchase the property themselves and obtain that better price.

Finally, there are allegations that Dexter has refused to provide documentation of his handling of the corporation. My advice to trustees, personal representatives and other fiduciaries is simple: stay organized, be honest, and keep a paper trail. Estate inventories and accountings are provided to beneficiaries as a matter of right. Keeping interested parties informed is the easiest way to avoid disagreements and distrust.

Simple procedural safeguards can be required by estate plan documents to diffuse arguments before they start. Indeed, careful drafting can help prevent disagreements like these and keep families together–and out of court.

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