Image Credit: ARMcGrath
Ray Charles was one of the greatest American singers, songwriters, and composers of the 20th Century. Blind from the age of seven, by the time he died in 2004 at the age of 73 he was a towering figure in popular music for his many great performances and hits including the Grammy award-winning single "Georgia on My Mind."
Charles was married only twice, but he fathered 12 children with ten different women, which led to complications in his estate planning. In 2002, as his health was failing, he brought his children together and announced that he was planning to leave most of his assets to the charitable foundation that he set up to support the deaf, the poor and youth. Each child was to receive $500,000 that would be placed in trusts, paid out over 5 years. Not everyone at that meeting heard the same thing, however. Some of his children came away from the meeting believing that they would each get $1 million and that they could each expect to inherit other money from his estate "down the line."
Unfortunately for Charles and his family, his estate plan also had some issues. For one, his 17-year old son, his youngest by a former mistress, received a relatively modest $3,000 in child support. His mother sued the estate in Probate Court and argued that her son should get $60,000 per month, a proportionate amount considering his estate was worth $100 Million. After a year of litigation, a Probate Judge ruled against her and her son.
But the controversy surrounding Charles' estate did not end there. Several of his children sued the foundation in 2004 claiming that they were promised a greater role in, and proceeds from, the foundation, tightly managed by Charles' long-time manager, Joe Adams.
Six years after Charles died, litigation between the late singers' children and Joe Adams in his multiple roles as director of the foundation and trustee of the children's trusts began to escalate as new issues surrounding copyrights and royalties surfaced. With Charles' recordings still generating huge royalties many years after he died, the stakes kept getting higher.
Although Joe Adams died in 2018, so far as we can tell, the battle over the Ray Charles estate apparently lives on - now 15 years later. The children won a key ruling four years ago, but other issues remained unresolved, which sent the case back to the courts for protracted litigation.
What can we learn from the Ray Charles case? From the outside, it certainly appears that he made an effort to head off a family feud prior to his death. Where he went wrong was maybe in not anticipating that his heirs would want more from his estate and that they were prepared to fight his foundation for future royalties. Also, the meeting between Charles and his children in 2002 appears to have gone undocumented, which left the door open for future objections. If his goal was to avoid challenges to his estate, there were probably legal routes he and his attorney could have taken that might have avoided the whole mess.
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