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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Joe Robbie (Miami Dolphins) - Episode 138


Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following the death of Joe Robbie – now, if you don’t recognize the name, that’s okay! I consider myself a fairly big sports fan and I didn’t really recognize his name. Well, he’s most known and most affiliated with the NFL team, the Miami Dolphins. He was actually he original owner of the Miami Dolphins team. Well, when he died, things sure got a little wild, so as we always do on this type of episode, let’s dive into him, as a person, before we really dive into what happened estate-wise following his death.

Hailing from South Dakota, Joseph (“Joe”) Robbie was born in 1916 – according to Wikipedia. After finishing high school, he ended up heading to the University of South Dakota, where he met his eventual wife, Elizabeth. When Pearl Harbor happened in 1941, Joe enlisted in the Navy the day after. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service during World War II. Once he was discharged, Joe went to the University of South Dakota for law school, where he ended up graduating from with a law degree. At the young age of 33, Joe started his political career in 1948. He was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives. He attempted to become to Governor of South Dakota – but lost. Shortly after that, his legal and political career brought him to Minnesota. All according to his Wikipedia page.

It was in Minnesota that he really started in the sports space – and specifically, he took an interest in professional football and became a season ticket holder for the Minnesota Vikings. In early 1965, Joe and the then-Commissioner of the American Football League, Joe Foss, met and Joe Foss encouraged Joe Robbie to consider starting a franchise based out of Miami, Florida. The Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins played their games in the Orange Bowl in Miami, until 1987, when the Stadium opened up. Today, the team’s stadium is called the Hard Rock Stadium; though, in 1987, when it opened, it was called the Joe Robbie Stadium. It was called the Joe Robbie Stadium until 1996. Kind of an interesting little fun fact – the Stadium, according to Wikipedia, was one of the first stadiums that through its design, considered ease to convert the field to be used for soccer or baseball.

Well, not long after the Stadium opened (which was in 1987), there were some rumors that Joe was not doing well – and then, all of a sudden, reports that he had died. He passed away on January 7, 1990 at the age of 73 years old. Before we talk about what happened estate-wise, I want to quickly note the family tree setup – so, Joe and Elizabeth got married shortly after meeting while at University of South Dakota. Together, they had eleven children, but two of the children passed away prior to Joe’s death. That left nine surviving children when Joe died. Now, Elizabeth also was still living when Joe passed away, but she wasn’t around too much longer. She died the next year in 1991 – all while the family was still in the middle of the estate saga related to Joe’s death. So, that seems like a good transition point for this episode – let’s shift to Joe’s estate now…

Now, to really get into what happened with happened following Joe’s death, we have to rewind a little bit and talk about his son, Michael, who for some period of time, served as the Dolphins’ General Manager, much to the disliking of many around the organization. He had some serious personal issues going on. So when Joe went to take the loan out for the stadium, the bank actually made a provision within the loan agreement that Michael could not be in charge as a Trustee of Joe’s estate. Joe agreed and ended up putting three of his nine children as Trustees – they were Tim, Janet, and Dan. Ultimately, Michael, according to Sports Illustrated, was demoted to operations. Oh, keep in mind, too, that Elizabeth, Joe’s wife, was still living – she was named as Vice President in an “advisory role.”

According to Sports Illustrated, Janet said, “When Dad died, things fell apart. There were problems immediately. I mean, immediately.” Supposedly, Elizabeth was “furious at Michael’s demotion, and at the fact that just three of her children were being given all the power. She stayed furious. When she died, she essentially cut Tim, Janet, and Dan out of her Will.” Janet further shared that Michael sent an organization-wide memo saying that he would make decisions. Janet said, “I don’t think Michael ever knew it was part of the Stadium deal that he couldn’t be a Trustee. My Dad’s intentions were really good, but he didn’t tell anybody what was going on.” That’s a serious bummer because what proceeded was a massive family fight, between the kids and Elizabeth.

Essentially on his death bed, Joe made an 11th hour deal. He told his daughter, Janet, that he needed five years and he’d straighten out/up his finances. Well, when things went from bad to worse with his health, Joe, according to Sports Illustrated, “negotiated to sell 50% of the Stadium and 15% of the Dolphins to waste management mogul Wayne Huizenga.”

Well, fast forward time to 1994, Tim, Janet, and Dan were navigating how to pay estate taxes and keep the team, when ultimately they decided to sell the remaining of the Dolphins team to Wayne. All of the articles I read in my research basically said that it was somewhat poor planning on Joe’s part because most of his estate worth was tied up in the team and stadium – so when Tim, Janet, and Dan, as Trustees, had to figure out how to pay estate taxes due to Joe’s death, their hands were sort of … tied. As the Sports Illustrated article says, “they sold Joe’s baby.” That sale yielded around $109 Million Dollars – but because of the pickle they were in, approximately $40-something Million went to estate taxes. Some say around $43 Million – others say around $47 Million. So, $40-something Million.

At that time, too, according to Sports Illustrated, each of the children received $3 Million Dollars in way of an inheritance – which more, of course, would come as they continued to navigate the estate.

They say timing is everything, right? Well, would you believe it if I told you fifteen years after they sold the Dolphins, as well as the stadium, Wayne ended up selling 95% of the Dolphins team and the stadium to a gentleman named Stephen Ross, who’s a real estate developer in New York. This transaction occurred in 2009 – anyway, guess what it sold for? $1 Billion Dollars. Since then, too, the value has only continued to dramatically increase. Wild! The Sports Illustrated article that this information is from was written in 2015 – and it said that then, in 2015, the same package was worth $1.85 Billion – which was “more than 17 times what Robbie’s children got for it.” So, can you imagine the value today in 2024? I can’t!

What transpired, generally speaking, after Joe’s death was unfortunate – fighting amongst the family, estate tax issues, hurt feelings, broken relationships, probably a lot of legal fees, etc. Should I keep going? In the Sports Illustrated article, it mentioned something like, “[Joe’s] kids have been fighting for longer than any of them ever lived in the same house. The youngest, Kevin, died in 2011. Some of the others have barely spoken to each other since their father’s team was sold. They don’t always know where their brothers or sisters live or what they’re doing. At this point, all they share is a scar.” That’s … wow! They all got a chunk of change…and a scar.

According to a TrustCounsel blog, Joe died away with an estate plan – but probably could have benefited from significantly more planning than he did. Supposedly, he died with a Pourover Will and Revocable Living Trust. His plan was setup to basically have assets held in Trust, after he died, with income to his wife, Elizabeth, for her life and then after she died, to the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, like we already talked about, the assets weren’t easy to use to pay estate taxes, but it also opened up a can of worms relating to Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth claimed that the income via the Trust was not enough – so ended up filing for, what is called a, spousal election – that means she, as the spouse, is allowed to seek 30% of the estate (according to Florida law). It’s difficult, if not possible, to disinherit a spouse without a Pre-Nup, so Ellizabeth had a leg to stand on, for sure. So, between this PLUS the estate tax dilemma, that’s what left Tim, Janet, and Dan, as Trustees, with the awful decision as to whether to sell the team and stadium.

You know, Joe Robbie’s case is an example of … well, gosh something that just really did NOT go well. What did I say earlier … something about family-fighting, drama with estate taxes, hurt feelings, broken relationships, etc. It’s a bummer that so often in my estate world, these things happen. Sometimes, they are avoidable; sometimes, they are not. Sure, here – Joe could have done more planning to ensure his estate would have had enough liquid assets to deal with estate taxes, but I’m not sure more planning would have solved issues relating to the family fighting. Maybe they would have. Maybe they won’t. We’ll never know, of course. We just know…a lot went wrong with his estate, which left “Joe’s baby” of the Dolphins and the stadium having to get sold … and for pennies on the dollar (for what it was years later and even today).

Alrighty, I think we’re ready to 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 -or- maybe they are just generally good things to know/be aware of so you don’t slip up and turn into a cautionary tale one day. Always good stuff on those episodes! Next week, we’re going to talk about a real-life client where there was a sibling that agreed to serve as the Executor for her brother’s Estate – well, turns out her brother left her quite a mess to clean. A lot of debt, a lot of creditors, and she was left to navigate those murky waters. So, we’ll talk about that next week – and what happened in it. Until then, take care and be well!

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