Celebrity Estate Planning - Kurt Cobain - Episode 44
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 Kurt Cobain – the lead vocalist and guitarist in the iconic band, Nirvana. I have you know that if I do a Legal Tea episode on a musician, I usually head to Youtube and listen to their songs/music as I write their episode. So yes, I’m currently listening to Nirvana (which is not my super—preferred choice in music, but it’s a change of pace) and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is playing. What a classic, right? On Kurt’s Wikipedia page, it shared that Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins referred to Kurt as the “Michael Jordan of our generation.” So yeah, a very well-known guy for sure.
Anyway, let’s talk a little about Kurt as a person first – his family, upbringing, wife, children, etc.
According to his Wikipedia page, Kurt was born in Aberdeen, Washington on February 20, 1967. When Kurt was a mere nine years old, Kurt’s parents divorced. Much later in his life, Kurt shared that their divorce had a “profound effect on his life.” In fact, in an interview in 1993, he said he felt “ashamed of his parents as a child and had desperately wanted to have a typical family … [he] wanted that security, so [he] resented [his] parents for quite a few years because of that.” While in high school, he dropped out after realizing he did not have enough credits to graduate – his mother told him to 1) find a job or 2) leave. After one week, Kurt found his belongings packed in boxes. He began couch-surfing and sometimes stayed at friends’ house – and even had various bouts of homelessness living under a bridge.
Fast forward a handful of years, that’s when Kurt and Courtney Love met – now, according to his Wikipedia, there’s some discrepancy on when/how Kurt and Courtney met – but nonetheless, they met and ended up getting married. Then, in 1992, they had a child, a little girl, named Frances Cobain. There were questions about Courtney’s drug use before and during the pregnancy – and on the topic of drug use, many associate Kurt with his drug use and abuse. In addition to that, Kurt experienced some mental health issues that, I think, are important to note. He was struggling. Ultimately, after breaking out (literally, escaping) a detox/recovery program facility, he went M.I.A. and was later located (a few days later) on April 8th dead at his home. He died by suicide. It was uncovered, following his passing, that he very likely died a few days prior; hence why his reported date of death is April 5th, 1994.
After his passing, much estate-wise happened. So, let’s dive in…
Just to give you some insight in terms of numbers and estate value – according to Daily Express Newspaper, Kurt’s estate was approximately worth $450M and it was further estimated that his estate would earn approximately $4.4M PER YEAR from album sales. So yeah, we’re not talking about little money here…
Estate planning-wise, should I do a drumroll? If you remember on our last “estate planning of the rich and famous” episode, we had Betty White, who clearly had excellent estate planning. Five months have passed since Betty’s passing, it’s still crickets (which is a good thing in my world – when things are not plastered all over the news, that’s usually good because it means their estate affairs are private). Well, Kurt was the opposite. Unfortunately, a lot is known about Kurt’s estate, the messy family/bandmate stuff, and who-got-what … all because Kurt did not do any estate planning. You heard me correctly – he did no estate planning. No Will, no Trust, nothing.
What that means is Kurt’s estate passed to people by the intestate laws – these fancy-named laws are a “built in” estate plan for individuals that do not do any estate planning. The good news? His estate passed to Courtney, his wife, and to his daughter, Frances, but the bad news? Well, that it got passed to Courtney, who following Kurt’s passing had legal troubles involving battery and assault and even drug issues – according to Courtney’s Wikipedia page, she said, a handful of years after the 1994/1995 timeframe when Kurt passed/following his passing, that she “had little memory of 1994-1995, as she had been using large quantities of heron…at the time.” And even Frances – it was bad news because she was a mere 20 months old when Kurt passed away. A solid estate plan could have protected Courtney (arguably from herself) and Frances (as a teeny tiny minor child).
So, when people pass away without an estate plan, it’s sometimes like a circus. That’s probably an accurate description as to what happened with Kurt’s estate. It just seemed very random, messy, and all-over-the-place. Not only is there NOT a set plan as to who-gets-what-and-how, but there’s not even a set person that should be named as the estate’s representative, i.e. the Executor or Personal Representative. For that reason, even though Courtney had well-documented struggles with drugs, mental health, and general instability, Courtney was left in charge, according to the TrustCounsel article.
Once Courtney became “in charge” of things, a few incidents happened that left many people scratching their heads – like what is going on? What is Courtney doing?
First, A few years after his death, specifically in 1997, Courtney and a few of the former Nirvana bandmates created an LLC to manage Nirvana-related projects, according to an article by Danielle & Andy Mayoras, attorneys out of Michigan. Well, that sounds like a good idea, right? Well, the night before the release of 45 recordings, Courtney filed a lawsuit to dissolve the LLC. Her reason? She said the LLC should be dissolved because Courtney received “bad advice” when setting it up – and she claimed that Kurt was “the band” and his bandmates were just “sidemen.” Those “sidemen” counter-sued Courtney, questioning her mental state, and requested she be removed from the LLC due to incapacity. According to the article by Danielle & Andy Mayores, the fighting did not end until 2002 when the parties finally settled.
Second, something else somewhat-strange that happened occurred in 2004. Courtney alleged that many individuals (i.e. banks, lawyers, accountants, former assistants, etc.) managing Kurt’s estate had stolen $30M in cash and a whopping $500M in real estate holdings. Courtney actually hired a lawyer to “go after” the individuals – however, still according to Danielle & Andy Mayoras’ article, that never came to fruition. All of the articles I read didn’t really say why; nonetheless, it fizzled.
Though, I did see that Courtney bashed the lawyer on Twitter by accusing that lawyer of being “bought out” by those individuals. After that strange allegation by Courtney, that lawyer actually turned around and sued Courtney for libel. (Side note: The lawyer actually lost – Courtney won on the basis that while the accusations were untrue, the Court claimed that Courtney did not knowingly make a false statement – which is an element to be satisfied in proving libel.) What drama!
One prevalent theme I saw throughout my research was the up-and-down relationship between Courtney and her and Kurt’s daughter, Frances. For example, in 2009, Frances actually filed for a restraining order against Courtney – and actually at some point, according to Danielle & Andy Mayores’ article, Courtney lost custody over Frances as well as managing Frances’ inheritance from Kurt’s estate. Though, according to an article from 2019 in People Magazine, Frances did, sort of, a tell-all and explained that her and her mother’s relationship is “back on track.” She shared: “I am somebody who only wants to provide the role for her, as somebody who loves her and supports her and has a non-judgmental perspective of empathy and compassion that maybe nobody else in her life has. … She’s a really good person. This what I like to call the ear of balance, and I hope that we’re bringing in the era of balance.” If you have a chance to check out the People Magazine article, you should – you can tell she’s really grown up and matured. She even discusses how it felt to be inheriting all this money that, in her words, she didn’t earn. Fascinating insight from her!
As we begin to wrap this episode up, I think there are 2 things to learn from Kurt’s estate – First, well this probably goes without being said, but #DoYourEstatePlan. All of this gobbly gook did not have to happen, but it did because he completely failed to do any planning. He could have picked “who” was in charge; “how” people inherited; etc. But he didn’t – and a mess ensued. Second, the way he left things could have permanently ruined the mother-daughter relationship between Courtney and Frances. It started off, following Kurt’s passing, quite sour. Thankfully, they were able to work through A LOT and learn to re-establish the relationship. It’s sad that estate planning, or lack thereof, has THAT depth of impact on personal relationships – but it does. I see it happen all the time.
As we all know, when money lands on the table, sometimes people act different. Sometimes, it’s not even the money aspect, but the emotional aspect of losing someone. When we lose someone, our emotions are on overdrive, right – I’ve seen where an emotionally-driven person, following the loss of a loved one, is making decisions based on emotions, rather than facts. I know this sounds silly, but I’ve heard where the kids will bring up things that happened in their childhood – i.e. “you were always Mom’s favorite!” … or “my brother stole my middle school girlfriend and I’ve never trusted him since” … They sound silly, but these raw times bring these emotions out – unfortunately, these emotions oftentimes cause rifts and fights in my estate world.
Having an estate plan takes the guesswork out of things – there will still be emotions, sure, but having a plan means that there’s a designated person in charge and that person merely has to follow the directions of the estate plan. Compare that to – NOT having a plan, someone having to step up as the person in charge, everyone agreeing to have that person be the one in charge (yes, everyone having to agree), and then, sort of, blindly following the intestacy statutes (remember, those are the laws for people that pass without an estate plan). With all that guesswork, it’s ripe for family disagreements, that could lead to estate litigation. Yuck!
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 (you know, not celebrity-level cases) that I, or my office, has personally worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about mistakes I see when people are trying to pre-plan for Medicaid (and before we dive into that, we’ll do a little review of Medicaid versus Medicare). So yeah, tune in for that next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Until then, take care and be well!