This is installment #2 of our Estate Planning Lessons From The Stars series, which is based on the Celebrity Legacies TV show for which we provide commentary as the estate legal experts. See other articles in the series here.
Doors front-man Jim Morrison died young at just 27 years of age, in 1971, from a heroin overdose. While his estate had limited cash when Morrison died, the assets in his estate became worth around $80 million.
Jim Morrison’s Estate
Despite his young age, hard-partying lifestyle, and free spirit, Jim Morrison took some steps to protect his estate … sort of. Two years before he died, Morrison created a will. It was a simplistic and poorly-drafted will, but a valid will nonetheless.
At least, it appeared to be valid initially. It left everything to his long-time companion, Pamela Courson, and if she failed to survive Morrison by three months, then his assets would pass to his brother and sister. Even though Courson did survive Morrison by more than three months, she was never able to enjoy the inheritance.
After Jim Morrison died, his estate was tied up in litigation in probate court. Dozens of women came forward with paternity claims. To make it worse, Morrison’s former Doors band mates also sued, claiming a bigger share of the Doors royalties.
Courson received a modest stipend to live on during the probate proceedings, but it wasn’t enough to support her lifestyle, or even pay for Morrison’s funeral. She was a reported heroin addict, and according to some, Courson turned to prostitution to support her drug habit.
Then Courson died only three years after Morrison — also from a heroin overdose and also at age 27. Because she died without a will, the Jim Morrison fortune would pass to her heirs under intestate law. That means Courson’s parents stood to receive the entire Morrison estate.
So Jim Morrison’s parents lit a fire on another round of litigation, attacking Morrison’s will and fighting about whether the common-law marriage to Courson was legitimate.
It was a valid question, for two reasons. One, the happy couple lived in California when they “married,” but the marriage was supported by a common-law marriage application in Colorado, which wasn’t even signed.
Second, Morrison had, only a year before, gone through a prior marriage ceremony with another girlfriend, Patricia Kennealy. Unlike the relationship with Courson, Morrison sealed the deal with Kennealy by undergoing a pagan marriage ritual that involved walking over fire and drinking each other’s blood.
Despite this extraordinary level of commitment, the probate court eventually determined that Morrison’s marriage to Courson was valid, despite his exchange of blood with Patricia Kennealy. How is that justice?!?
And still the fighting continued. Courson’s parents not only had to prove she was legally married to Morrison, they also had to defend against the will contest brought by Morrison’s parents. The Doors singer’s parents claimed his will was invalid, because he was not competent when he wrote it. Why not? They alleged he was under the influence of narcotics at the time.
In the end, the Morrison war ended with an out-of-court settlement. Reportedly, they split everything 50/50. But it was the Coursons who walked away with the all-important rights to manage and control Morrison’s image, music, and royalties.
And what about Morrison’s brother and sister — the alternate beneficiaries? They received nothing, because of the three-month clause. Would Morrison really have wanted them to be left out, in favor of two sets of parents he didn’t like?
Probably not! Mr. Courson reportedly disliked Jim Morrison, did not approve of his daughter’s relationship with the singer, and even blamed Morrison for Courson’s death. And Morrison’s parents were not exactly close to him before he died, either. Morrison’s dad felt his rock-star son had a “complete lack of talent” in music and should have chosen a different career. Morrison publicly claimed that his parents were dead.
The lesson from this saga (for Doors fans and non-Doors fans alike): A simple will is usually not enough. While it is very unusual for a will done by a 27-year old to be challenged on the basis of competency, it is almost always easier for disgruntled family members to challenge the validity of a simple will, rather than a trust done by an experienced estate planning attorney.
Wills have to pass through probate court, which often lead to delays, complications, and extra fighting — as Pamela Courson learned. Overly-simplistic wills, unlike properly-drafted trusts, often fail to address the many “what-ifs” that can occur when someone dies. Such as, what if Courson was to survive Morrison for three years, but not long enough for the estate to be distributed — who would Morrison have wanted to inherit his money then? Questions such as this can easily be addressed in a proper trust.
You don’t need to be worth $80 million to follow this advice! Almost everyone with assets of significance should take the time to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to find out if a trust is right for them. This can give you the piece of mind that the people (or charities) whom you want to receive your assets will do so, in the way you want, instead of allowing your wishes to be derailed by probate court complications.
If you want your heirs to “break on through to the other side” of probate drama, meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to do the proper estate planning.
Celebrity Legacies is a documentary series airing on the Reelz cable channel, featuring Danielle and Andy Mayoras and other experts, to explore the lives, legacies, and estates of a different celebrity each week. Click here for upcoming show times.
Danielle and Andrew Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Google+.