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Jerry Garcia | An Estate Quagmire

Jerry Garcia Estate Dispute.jpg

Image Credit: Carl Lender 

Before he died of a heart attack while attending a drug treatment facility in August 1995, Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead rock band, was already a legend. Thousands of fans, known as "Deadheads," followed Garcia and his bandmates to concerts around the world. Included among them were such celebrities as John Belushi, Jimmy Buffett, Al Gore, Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, and even the unlikely iconic newsman Walter Cronkite.

Jerry Garcia lived hard and died broke, according to his lawyer, but that didn't keep him from bequeathing large sums of money he didn't have. Between Garcia's bohemian lifestyle, multiple ex-wives, children, and step-children by spouses and non-spouses, and a drug addiction that made him vulnerable to financial predators, Garcia lived on the edge and took risks most people in his situation would never take. Perhaps his worst mistake, at least from an estate perspective, was that he never consulted with an attorney, and he did essentially no estate planning.

He was married three times, first when he was 21 to Sara Ruppenthal, who met Garcia at a coffee house where he regularly performed. Their marriage was short-lived because Garcia started dating Carolyn Adams, also known as "Mountain Girl," and moved in with her when he was 24. They had two daughters while both were married to other people. Garcia then divorced his first wife to marry his second, but in the meantime, he met Deborah Koons, an aspiring filmmaker, in 1973 when he was 31.

Garcia's relationship with Koons was on again/off again, and during one of their split-ups he reconciled with Adams. The two were married in 1981, in a union that was reportedly for tax purposes. Whatever the reason, Adams and Garcia remained married until 1994, at which time Garcia divorced Adams to marry Koons.

When Garcia died barely a year later, his third wife Koons became the executor of his estate. His will, like much of his life, was messy and chaotic. More than $50 million in claims were made, against which the estate itself was ultimately valued at no more than $9.9 million. Most of Garcia's estate consisted of personal property, including art and a collection of comic books.

One of the largest claims was made by Garcia's second wife, Adams, who produced a separation agreement signed by Garcia 18 months before he died, that promised her $250,000 per year, and up to $5 million in support. She had reportedly drafted the agreement herself. With no cash to fund the estate at the time, Koons reneged on the deal and was taken to court by Adams. The two parties ultimately reached a settlement of $1.2 million.

One of Garcia's daughters also made a claim against the estate, claiming that she was left with very little inheritance, a dispute that was also eventually settled.

As befits a celebrity like Garcia, many colorful people came forward to state their claims. Doug Erwin, his guitar maker, was left four guitars in his will, but Garcia's fellow band members argued that the guitars were property of the band and not Garcia's personally. Erwin sued the estate and eventually reached a settlement to receive two guitars which, by the way, sold for nearly $2 million at auction.

It took nearly 9 years before Garcia's estate was finally settled, during which time Koons was able to negotiate and whittle the $50 million in claims to less than $1 million. A 2003 documentary, Can't Take It With You, details the topsy-turvy path of the late singer's estate.

Garcia may not have been the best businessman, but before he died, he did make one licensing deal that worked out well for his heirs and beneficiaries. In 1987, the Vermont ice cream makers Ben & Jerry introduced their Cherry Garcia flavor in homage to Garcia, for which the company continues to pay royalties to this day.

Ingrained as it is in modern culture, you might even say that Cherry Garcia Ice Cream has become the cherry on top of Jerry Garcia's legacy.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my book, The Wolf at the Door. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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