Jenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea
Celebrity Estate Planning - Jimi Hendrix - Episode 77
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Today, we’re on the “estate planning of the rich and famous” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened estate-wise following the passing of one of the most famous musicians there is, Jimi Hendrix, who, according to Britannica, describes him as an “American rock guitarist, singer, and composer who fused American traditions of blue, jazz, rock, and soul with techniques of British avant-garde rock to redefine the electric guitar in his own image.” To me, that makes sense – when I hear the name, Jimi Hendrix, I think “guitarist.” Actually, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes Jimi as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.” Needless to say, he’s a music legend. Unfortunately, his life was cut short – so his music career was rather short-lived.
Born in Seattle, Washington in November 1942, Jimi’s childhood was less than ideal. According to his Wikipedia page, his biological parents sure struggled – his father, Al, was in the military and was not present for Jimi’s birth or immediate upbringing. In fact, they did not even meet until Jimi was around 3 years old (when his father had been relieved of his military duties). His biological mother, Lucille, struggled raising him, so Jimi was predominantly cared for and raised by his mother’s sister and friend. After his father came back from his military service, his parents attempted to reconnect, but ultimately coped with their struggles through alcohol. Many years later, specifically in 1951, his parents ended up getting divorced and the Court awarded custody of Jimi to his father and his brother, Leon.
According to Wikipedia, Jimi, starting in his elementary years, gravitated towards music – for example, Jimi would carry around a broom in elementary pretending it was a guitar. The school’s social worker took note and argued that “leaving him without a guitar might result in psychological damage.” A few years later, he found a ukulele in the garbage – although it only had one string, he snagged it and taught himself how to play it; among his favorites to play was Elvis Presley’s song, “Hound Dog.” Finally, at the age of 15, Jimi got his first “real” acoustic guitar. The next year, he got an electric guitar. After a brief stint in the military himself, Jimi gradually made a name for himself in the music industry really starting in the early/mid 1960s. Then, by the late 1960s, he was famous and as Wikipedia states, “by 1969, Jimi was the world’s highest paid rock musician.”
As some would maybe describe, Jimi sure lived that “rock and roll lifestyle.” Throughout the 1960s, he used (and abused) alcohol and different types of drugs. He repeatedly got himself in some precarious situations, to say the least, due to the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. Tragically, at the age of 27 years old, Jimi passed away and the details of his death were … interesting. On September 17th, Jimi was spending time with his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, while in London. Monika shared that during the evening, they had a meal together and split a bottle of wine. She drove him to a friend’s place, and he was there for a little over an hour. The next morning, when she woke up, she found Jimi breathing, but unresponsive. She called 9-1-1, and an ambulance transported Jimi to a nearby hospital, where he ended up passing away on September 18, 1970. Like I said, he was 27 years old at the time of his passing.
Subsequent to his passing, no estate plan was discovered. No Will, no Trust, nothing. Though, many 27 year olds don’t really think that death is near and in doing so, they don’t have an estate plan. According to an article on Medium.com by Peter Allsop, Jimi, at his passing, owed back taxes, had a lot of debts, and only had about $20,000 in a bank account. Though, as time passed, Jimi’s name and music “lived on” and got bigger, his estate (even after his passing) got bigger to the tune of $80 Million Dollars in 1994 and … $175 Million Dollars, as of 2018. So yeah, it just keeps on growing!
Because Jimi passed away without an estate plan, it went by the State’s intestacy rules. When I describe intestacy laws, this is how I describe them – I say, “Did you know that even if you have never done a Will, Trust, or estate plan, you still have an estate plan? It’s just the estate plan that the State wrote for you!” So, according to his State’s intestacy rules, Jimi’s estate would be distributed to his father, Al. His biological mother, Lucille, had passed away at the age of 33 (when Jimi was like 16 years old) – so she wasn’t “in the mix” of the intestacy rules and distribution of Jimi’s estate. If you recall at the beginning of the episode, Jimi and his father had quite the tumultuous relationship – so the fact that all of Jimi’s estate got distribute to Al, I have to wonder if Jimi would have REALLY wanted that – we’ll never know, unfortunately.
A handful of years after Jimi passed away, Al married a woman named June and Al ended up adopting June’s daughter, Janie. At the time of Jimi’s passing, Janie was a mere 9 years old – and her and Jimi had met just a couple of times. At that time, no one probably knew the drama that would ensue because after Jimi’s passing, Janie became quite the close confidant to Al – and in Al’s estate plan, his Will, he wrote Janie “into” the Will and his other children, including Leon, who Jimi was the closest with, OUT of his Will. Rut roh – you know that is going to cause issues at Al’s passing … well, it did! We’ll get to that in a second.
According to the Medium.com article, at Jimi’s passing, an estate lawyer by the name of Leo Branton took over Jimi’s estate. Initially, the estate paid out to Al a handsome income through the royalties. However, a few years after Jimi passed away, specifically in 1974, Al released and signed over the rights to Jimi’s music to a company represented, too, by Leo Branton, that was outside the US (based in the country of Panama). After that, the rights were transferred to two offshore companies – Elber BV, a Dutch company, and Interlit, a British Virgin Island company. A little too coincidentally, Leo Branton represented Elber BV and Interlit as well. (My lawyer brain is saying, “Did someone sign a waiver of conflict of interest?! Like what?!)
Nearly twenty years later, in 1993, Al, Jimi’s dad, was very, very mad because he thought he still held the music rights and that instead of relinquishing them, that he merely passed them in a quasi-rental agreement to these companies. So, as anyone say from a mile away, Al filed suit against Leo Branton and alleged that it was not only a conflict of interest, but a breach of trust too. Ultimately, the family settled with Leo Branton for, according to the Medium.com article, an “undisclosed sum.” Thereafter, Al took control back of Jimi’s “entire recorded output, unreleased tapes, music publishing rights, photos, films, videos, and the right to exploit Jimi’s image.”
So, after all the saga, Al ended up passing away in 2002 – just over 30 years after Jimi passed away. Before Al had passed away, June, his wife and brief stepmother of Jimi, had passed away a few years prior to Al, so remember how I said that Al had updated his Will to include Janie – and take out his kids? So yep, at Al’s passing, his Will said his estate, which mostly comprised of earnings and assets directly from Jimi’s estate, went to Janie – you know, Jim’s stepsister who he had only met a few times. Again, like Jimi’s estate going to Al (which I doubt Jimi even would have wanted his estate to go to his father, Al), Jimi’s estate trickled down to Janie. Highly doubt that is what Jimi wanted either – but like I said when we talked about it going to Al. We won’t ever know what Jimi would have REALLY wanted. We’re all just totally guessing that he would NOT have wanted things to go to his father and stepsister.
You probably saw this coming from a mile away, too, but after Al passed and Leon, Jimi’s brother, found out that he wasn’t even in his father’s Will, Leon filed suit to contest Al’s Will, according to the Medium.com article. His argument was that Janie inappropriately influenced his father into disinheriting him. Unfortunately for Leon, in 2007, the Court rejected his argument and ruled in Al’s estate/Janie’s favor. In some additional court cases involving Leon and Janie … Leon had been selling some Jimi-themed merchandise, and Janie, according to the Grunge.com article, “jealously guarded the estate of her stepbrother she barely knew.” So, Janie threw back a lawsuit against Leon for selling Jimi-related merchandise. However, through the back-and-forth cases, the Court ended up granting Leon the “rights to Jimi’s name and likeness” but NOT his music (which Janie got to keep as part of Al’s estate).
So yeah, needless to say, all this scuttlebutt was directly caused by Jimi NOT having an estate plan – no Will, no Trust, anything. I hate to be so direct, but if Jimi is rolling in his grave about where his estate ultimately really ended up (into his stepsister’s hands), he really has no one to blame but himself. Or, heck, maybe he’s just fine and dandy with how things turned out. PROBABLY not, but the whole theme of this episode is we’ll just never know, right? All because Jimi didn’t express what his wishes were. I don’t usually like to say this phrase, but I’m going to say it for the sake of this episode – a “simple Will.” I really don’t think there should be a simple Will; I’ve gone on this soapbox before. But, I sure think even having SOMETHING here would have sure been better than having nothing. It hurts me heart that his multi-million dollar estate ended in the hands of people that I’d probably guess he wouldn’t have wanted to have ALL of it. Maybe a portion of it – but doubt all of it.
As I started this episode by saying, Jimi was only 27 years old at the time of his passing. I’d argue that MOST 27 year olds do NOT have an estate plan. It’s just not on their mind. Honestly, the only time I ever help people in their 20s is either 1) they have kids and realize that especially when you have kids, an estate plan is super duper important or 2) they are sort of getting pressured to do something by their parents, grandparents, guardians, whoever. So yeah, I do NOT have a ton of 20-something year old clients for this very reason – it’s just not really on their mind.
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, what many in my field, called “funding” a Trust – it’s a step that SO OFTEN people often-unintentionally miss doing. In our “cautionary tale” we’re going to be talking about a case where a client kept throwing our letters regarding funding her Trust on the kitchen counter … her Trust never got fully-funded and it was a total and complete disaster. And it’s still sadly going on. Ugh! Anyway, tune in for that next week, but until then, Legal Tea Listeners,– take care and be well!