Law of the Realm of the King of Pop
Yesterday's touching memorial service ends one chapter in the story of Michael Jackson, but the story is by no means over. The stage is likely to shift from the Staples Center and Forest Grove to the courts of California. There may be dozens of actions arising in coming months, but for the fan of celebrity law, I think four areas are worth watching:
Case 1: X. v. Estate of Michael Joseph Jackson.
Although the 2002 will currently before the court seems well-drafted and clear as to Jackson's intentions, there appears to be some tension between the Jackson family and the two men that the will names as executors, John Branca, Jackson's lawyer, and John McClain, a music executive. It is possible that other wills may surface and that the family may challenge many of the tough decisions that need to be made over the coming months. The estate has a lot of creditors, and must figure out what to do with obligations over Jackson's planned tour. Nonetheless, there is huge value inherent in the Michael Jackson brand; one need only look at the example of the Elvis Presley estate and its postmortem success to see the potential. Executors will need to balance the need to pay up the estate's debts while preserving the potential for huge future income for the estate (and its beneficiary, the Michael Jackson Trust). At all costs, they need to preserve Jackson's intellectual property rights and regain control over Neverland. If the executors appear to be selling core assets essential to the future earnings of the Jackson Trust, the family will likely try to intervene. Branca, the lawyer that engineered Jackson's purchase of a stake in the Sony/ATV Music Catalog, an asset reportedly worth $2 billion, is well placed to pull off the delicate balancing act, but there are lots of pitfalls.
Of course, the family is only the most likely of several routine suits by creditors against the estate for debts, real and imagined, and perhaps a few from persons purporting to have familial ties. Of course, the arrangement Jackson chose, a narrowly drafted will that rolls estate assets into a trust, is the best defense against the out-of-the woodwork wife and lost-lost child.
Case 2: In RE Michael
The Michael Jackson Trust (MJT) (a revocable living trust ) is the named recipient of the will and while the details are secret, press reports indicate that Jackson's children will receive a 40% share, his mother, Katherine (not his father) also receives 40%, and charities take 20%. Reportedly, the charities are not listed in the trust document, but are to be selected by the trustee(s). Who the trustees are is likely to determine if there are future conflicts; if it is Branca and McClain, as at least some reports have speculated, there might be trouble. In particular, the trustees need to make sure that the charities chosen conform to Jackson's vision, not the interest of the trustee(s).
Case 3: In the Matter of P.M., K.M. and P.M..
Debbie Rowe, presumptive mother of Jackson's first two children, never terminated her parental rights under California law and could challenge the court's grant of temporary custody to Katherine Jackson, Michael's mother. Regarding Jackson's third child, it is possible that a surrogate mother might appear and claim rights. Reports indicate that Rowe is at least considering such a course and California law gives her strong legal rights, as a presumed mother, towards a a grant of some form of custody. Nonetheless, there are hurdles; she has not had contact with the children for many years and she reportedly has signed documents abjuring her rights. There is also the possibility that she is not the biological mother; if so the Jackson lawyers likely have signed surrogacy agreements in their files. Even greater obstacles exist for the unnamed surrogate mother. Nonetheless, the financial and life style that goes with managing the inherited wealth of these wealthy minors may be irresistible.
Case 4: State
of California v. Doctor ... [for
the murder of Michael Joseph Jackson]
Was Jackson's death a case of [dramatic pause] murder?! Without a cause of death and tox reports still in the lab, the facts are murky, but what is (and, frankly, has long been) clear is that Michael Jackson has been ill-served by shadier elements of the medical community, one of whom might have killed him. Currently, California authorities are looking into the activities of five doctors. If Jackson died while a doctor or medical technician was administering anesthesia for the medically unsound purpose of treating a sleep disorder, that person's actions may be considered to be murder under California law. There is a very interesting ALR Annotation relating to this topic. (Yes, that is probably a sentence that could only be uttered by a law librarian). The annotation, Homicide: criminal liability for death resulting from unlawfully furnishing intoxicating liquor or drugs to another, 32 A.L.R.3d 589, focuses mainly cases involving the provision of illegal drugs from a dealer, but I think the case for homicide is even greater if, as appears possible here, the drug is provided by a physician who administers the drug. Most of the cases involve the felony-murder doctrine, because the drugs like heroin are per se illegal, an issue that may or may not be involved in the Jackson death (depending whether the doctor properly prescribed them). However, a resort to the felony-murder doctrine is not necessary if the doctor is at the scene and shows the requisite malicious itent (which in California can be inferred from evidence of wanton disregard for life). The annotation shows that many courts have upheld murder convictions for situations at least similar to what has been posited here.
Of course, these scenarios may not play out, or other legal issues will be raised. Nonetheless, I think it will be a long time before legal commentators on CNN, Fox and TruTV stop talking about Michael Jackson and his legal affairs.