Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to “estate planning of the rich and famous” where we chat about celebrities and their estate planning. Today’s episode is on the country music star, Hank Williams. Before we dive into what happened estate-wise following his passing, let’s talk a little about Hank, as a person, first. According to his Wikipedia page, Hank was born in Alabama on September 17, 1923. From birth, Hank suffered from spina bifida. At the age of 21, Hank married a lady named Audrey Sheppard in 1944 – and about five years later, they had a child, ol’ Hank Williams Jr. It was shared, on the Wikipedia page, that Hank developed issues with alcohol, morphine, and painkiller that were prescribed to him for the spina bifida pain. That caused a rift in his marriage.
Just a couple years after Hank Williams Jr. was born, Hank and Audrey divorced. Eventually, he moved to Nashville and met a lady named Bobbie Jett. Hank and Bobbie had a child (which we’re going to get into in a second because she is a major player in the estate saga that ensued following Hank’s passing). But anyway, in a strange turn of events, Hank ended up getting married again – but not to Bobbie Jett, but to a lady named Billie Jean Jones (also known as Billie Jean Horton). Well, I use the word “married” but there was question as to whether it was considered a legal marriage. You see, AFTER Hank passed away, a Judge ended up ruling that the wedding was not actually legal because Billie Jean Jones’ divorce had not been finalized (from her prior husband). In fact, according to Wikipedia, her divorce was finalized 11 days AFTER her “marriage” to Hank. More on that in a bit.
Fast forward a mere few months later, Hank passed away on January 1, 1953 at the age, the too young age, of 29 years old – it was tragic and surprising to many, many people. Crazy enough, the daughter he had with Bobbie Jett was actually born 5 days after Hank passed away. So, let’s talk about this kiddo – so, Bobbie Jett named the child Antha Belle Jett and then shortly after Antha’s birth, Bobbie up and left to head to California leaving Antha with Hank’s mother, Lillian Stone. Lillian ended up adopting the little girl and renamed her Catherine Stone. Unfortunately, Lillian passed away and Catherine became a ward of the state. About a year later, a couple, Wayne and Louise Deupree (pronounced Do-pray), adopted her and yet again, renamed her to Catherine Deupree. Fast forward many years, Cathy gets married to an attorney by the name of Keith Adkinson and once again, changed her name, but to reflect her marriage, and so it was changed to Catherine Adkinson – but the name craziness doesn’t end there. She, too, is a musician and her stage name? Jett Williams. Sounds like a nod to her biological mother and father, if you ask me!
So if you ever hear about this case, or Hank Williams’ family, just know that Antha Belle Jett is the same person as Catherine Stone is the same person as Catherine Deupree is the same person as Catherine Adkinson is the same person as Jett Williams. Whew – that was a doozy! For the rest of this episode, let’s call her Cathy for ease.
So, let’s get to what happened following Hank’s passing…
Where.do.we.even.start? Yikes. Well, for starters, I found a series on Amazon Prime called The Will; Family Secrets Revealed which is allllll about estate craziness, so you know what I’ll be binging soon! Anyway, there is a whole episode (just 45 minutes long) on Hank Williams’ Estate. Let’s dive in!
It wasn’t until many years after Hank passed away when Cathy actually found out she was his biological daughter. In fact, she got tipped off about it on her 21st birthday when her adoptive parents mentioned it, but casually disregarded it. Then, her adoptive Dad, who was not well, admitted to Cathy that he thought she should look into it more. She was 27 years old at the time. So, he sent Cathy what he had documents-wise and away she went on her research. After a lot, and I mean a lot, of time, energy, and effort, Cathy confirmed that Bobbie Jett was her biological mother (she found out about this after Bobbie had passed away at the age of 51). Confirming her mother was Bobbie ultimately what resulted in Cathy, and her attorney/now-husband, Keith, in learning that Hank was definitely her biological father. All of that according to The Will documentary I watched!
Interestingly, “how” it came to fruition was a sealed (with the Court) custody agreement between Hank and Bobbie laying out custody arrangements. As Cathy, who is part of and speaks during the The Will documentary I watched, said, “Never did I ever think that I would have a contract that my father entered into with my mother that said ‘I am the father and I want you.” That gave me chills to hear – and chills to read.
Okay then, in 1967, an Alabama Circuit Court Judge ruled that Cathy, because she had been adopted, had no rights to make a claim in Hank’s estate, according to a SunSentinel article. Fast forward some time later, specifically in 1985 (about 20 years later), Cathy initiated a case in Alabama and New York, according to a Los Angeles Times article, and ultimately in 1989, the Alabama Supreme Court “found [Cathy] had been a victim of fraud and ruled that the estate of Hank Willims Sr. be reopened, 15 years after it was closed.” In the New York case (since that was the Alabama case I just referenced), they reversed their prior decision and said that Cathy should be given a jury trial, according to the Los Angeles Times article. Not a lot is discussed about the New York case, so in my judgment, I think the Alabama Court is where much of the saga happened.
According to The Will documentary, a six year legal battle ensued following Cathy being determined to be Hank’s biological daughter and Hank’s estate reopening. Ultimately, what ended up happening? Any guesses? Does it change your guess if I mention that Hank, Jr., Audrey (his first wife), and the record companies all had huge, big-name attorneys and teams leading the charge? Well, the answer is … the estate got re-opened and made Cathy a legal heir of the estate of Hank Williams meaning she now shares not only in his estate, but his copyrights/royalties which, to no one’s surprise, is worth millions of dollars. Following the legal craziness, The Will documentary shares a brief update on where some of the personal relationships stand. For example, it shared that Hank Jr. and Cathy have reconciled and now, they are co-custodians of THEIR father’s estate.
Beyond the lawsuits directly involving Cathy and Hank’s Estate, Audrey, Hank’s first wife, went toe-to-toe with Billie Jean, Hank’s second wife. As one article, a Musicoholics article, states, “Following his death, both Billie Jean and Audrey battled over his estate, each one competing over the title of Hank Williams’ widow.” Long story short, according to that same article and like I referenced earlier, the Court ruled in 1953 that Hank and Billie Jean’s marriage wasn’t really valid (even though they, Hank and Billie Jean, considered it to be – and that’s why, like on Hank’s Wikipedia, she is still referenced as a spouse) because Billie Jean had not been officially divorced from her prior husband. Audrey ended up “paying her off” so Billie Jean got $30,000 to basically said “I give up my rights to Hank’s estate and name.”
This is probably obvious/clear, but just to clarify, Hank did not have any estate plan, no Last Will and Testament, nothing. Alrighty, so now that we know the craziness that ensued following Hank’s too-soon passing, there sure is a lot to take away from his estate, so let’s dive into that…
First thing to learn – an estate plan sure would have been helpful. I know we have talked about this before on here, but so often what leads to estate litigation and craziness is because something is MISSING or UNCLEAR. Here, we’ll never know how Hank would have wanted his Estate divided because there’s nothing in writing telling us – we can assume, but you know what they say about assuming … and assuming is a no-no in my little world. We can’t assume. If there’s gray area, we often have to get the Court involved to have a Judge or Jury assist. We knew the opinion of Cathy, Audrey, Billie Jean, Hank Jr., all their attorneys, etc. etc. etc., but whose opinion was most important and yet the one we were missing? Hank’s. Hank Sr., that is.
Second thing to learn – Estate planning and adoption. Well, in my little world, when adopted, you sever the “legal relationship” with your natural/biological parents. That means that if a child that has been adopted cannot “go after” their biological parents’ estate. Though, I think the unique factor here with Hank, Bobbie, and Cathy is the timing/sequence of events. So, Cathy was born AFTER Hank passed away. After Cathy was born, Bobbie gave her up for adoption. Hank did not. Bobbie did, as the sole/surviving biological parent. Because Hank was not alive to give his consent (or opinion) on the adoption, that’s what makes things a bit different. I’ve not read the Court’s opinion or transcript, but I know The Will documentary talked about the uniqueness of things when the Court sided in Cathy’s favor as being an heir. So, I wonder if that’s what they hung their hat on – that Hank was not alive when she was born and therefore, he did not “technically” give her up for adoption. Maybe?
Third thing to learn – Sheesh, well, you’re never too young, well unless you’re under the age of 18, to do estate planning. Hank was 29 years old when he passed away. Did he live a rough lifestyle? Sure. But that’s not always the cause of a too-early death. So, dangit, #DoYourEstatePlan, people. We never know when it’s going to be our time. Such a cliché saying, but there’s so much truth in it, right?
Okay, let’s wrap this episode up – next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about guardianship – I know we’ve talked about guardianship a bit on here, like about Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, etc. But, you know, I’ve had some clients recently that were unclear on “what” a guardianship actually is, “what” they are supposed to do (and not do), etc. So, let’s talk about it to bring it some awareness. Tune in for that next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Until then, take care and be well!
The Will: Family Secrets Revealed, Season 1, Episode 2. Estate of Hank Williams.