Estate Litigation Senior Associate Melissa Tucker discusses the perils of a simple Will using the example of Jim Morrison’s contested estate.
The Doors, one of the most influential and controversial rock bands of the 1960s, were formed in Los Angeles in 1965 by UCLA film students Ray Manzarek, keyboards, and Jim Morrison, vocals; with drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger. The group signed to Elektra Records in 1966 and released its first album, The Doors, featuring the hit “Light My Fire,” in 1967.
The Doors were hard-pressed to match their first hit, although their next few albums contained a wealth of first-rate material. On The Soft Parade, the group experimented with brass sections, with mixed results. The group charged back hard with the final two albums they recorded with Morrison, on which they drew upon stone-cold blues for much of their inspiration, especially on 1971’s L.A. Woman.
From the start, The Doors’ focus was the charismatic Morrison, who proved increasingly unstable over the group’s brief career. In 1969, Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure during a concert in Miami, an incident that nearly derailed the band. Upon the completion of L.A. Woman, Morrison decamped for Paris. He died there, apparently of a drug overdose. The three surviving Doors tried to carry on without him but ultimately disbanded.
Overly simplistic Wills and Jim Morrison’s contested estate
Overly simplistic Wills often fail to consider what happens when the primary beneficiary subsequently dies.
Morrison, who died at 27, despite his young age, hard-partying lifestyle, and free spirit, took the steps to protect his estate with Will. The problem is it was a simplistic and a poorly drafted two page Will.
At the time of Morrison’s death, his financial assets were relatively modest, but he owned a 25% interest in The Doors.
Morrison’s Will declared that he was unmarried and had no children, and he bequeathed his entire estate outright to his Common Law (de facto partner) wife Pamela Courson, if she survived him, or if not, in equal shares to his brother and sister. He was estranged from his parents, so they were not mentioned.
After Morrison died, his estate was tied up in litigation in probate court. Dozens of women came forward with paternity claims. Unfortunately, this was long before DNA tests could prove paternity, so it was up to the court to decide if the claims were credible or not. To make matters 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 probate proceeding but it wasn’t enough to support her lifestyle or even to pay for Morrison’s funeral. She was reportedly a heroin addict and some suggested she turned to prostitution to support her drug habit.
In 1974, three years after Morrison died, the court finally rejected the other claims and recognised Courson as the heir to his estate. Only a few weeks later, Courson herself died of a heroin overdose.
Whilst Morrison’s de facto partner (or Common Law wife) inherited his entire estate when she passed away, she died intestate without a Will, so her estate (including what she had just inherited from Morrison) passed outright to her own parents.
Jim Morrison’s contested estate
Morrison’s parents made a claim against their son’s estate arguing that Morrison was incompetent to make a Will and that the Common Law marriage to Courson was illegitimate.
Had Morrison’s parents been successful in those claims, his estate would have passed to them on intestacy.
However, the court found that Courson was in a Common Law marriage with Morrison, so even if the Will was invalid, she would have inherited the entire estate.
Although Morrison’s parents were estranged from their son at the time of his death and were not named in his Will, they believed that they had as much right to their son’s legacy and estate as the parents of his Common Law wife.
The dispute between the parents lasted for several more years. By 1980, the litigation between the two families was settled out of court with an agreement that each would split the royalties of Morrison’s share of The Doors music catalogue 50-50.
Because Morrison and The Doors became much more popular in the years following, the value of that royalty stream is reported to have been more than $80 million.
Lessons to be learnt from the contest of Jim Morrison estate
Instead of making an outright bequest to Courson, Morrison could have left all his assets on Trust and provided that upon her subsequent death, any remaining assets would pass to his siblings.
If Morrison had included a Testamentary Trust in his Will, he could have extended his control over his assets. Doing so would have ensured that his desired beneficiaries ultimately inherited his estate.
The lessons from all these types of cases are clear. Having an estate plan and creating a will with a clear cut intention helps avoid future potential problems.
How should I best protect my testamentary wishes?
Chances are many readers have spent plenty of time pondering how much money they will have available for retirement. But what have you done to plan your estate, for your children and grandchildren? The sad truth is that most of us – some 50% of adult Australians have neglected to write a Will.
Going to the trouble to protect your heirs with a Testamentary Trust is very beneficial, helping your beneficiaries by turning your carefully-built nest egg into chicken feed.
Once your Will is in place you then need to review it regularly and amend it whenever there is a big change in your family circumstances such as a birth, death or a marriage.
It might seem like a hassle now, but it is nothing compared to the hassles your heirs will experience if you die without a Will, or with a Will that does not match your current circumstances.