In 1981, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released the album Hard Promises, containing the single: The Waiting. In it, Tom sings, “oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now? Don’t it feel like something from a dream? Yeah, I’ve never known nothing quite like this”.
Tom’s lyrics uncannily describe an opposite reality of the evolution of what on its face appeared to have been careful and deliberative estate planning on his part. The most recent turn in Tom’s estate plan is that his daughters (from marriage number one) have just filed their own lawsuit against his widow. The fight continues for Tom’s valuable artistic catalogue. We now have developing hard knuckles estate litigation.
It is increasingly common that a family’s estate litigation does not occur in a single court. The trend is multiple legal disputes in more than one jurisdiction – sometimes at the same time.
In all of his work planning his estate, Tom likely never envisioned that his survivors would be fighting in court – let alone two courts at one time. His wife Dana’s petition in probate court sought to have the court approve a professional manager to handle the catalogue of Tom’s legendary works. In that probate court, his daughter Adria, filed another probate petition to wrestle control of the estate from Dana. So, in Tom’s estate the initial battle line was formed by two applications for competing relief in the same court. This is not all that uncommon. Probate court is often confronted with dueling petitions competing for the same or similar relief. The classic arguments are that one party or another is better suited or more fit to handle the fiduciary duties for the estate than another competing party.
Beyond dueling petitions (often termed “cross petitions”) in one court for the same relief, what prompts litigants in these cases to pursue more fights in various and different courts? In many cases separate initiation of multiple suits by the same parties are driven by the nature of the relief available in a particular court. In Tom’s case his daughters started their separate lawsuit in a state court in California. That is not atypical in more complicated or asset laden estate disputes where the claims are directed by persons, seeking to gain benefit from the estate, against individuals who stand in their way or who have themselves allegedly benefitted to the detriment of the other party.
While the Surrogate’s Court in New York has jurisdiction over the handling of the estate and many related proceedings, many estate disputes spawn and emanate satellite litigation in New York State Supreme Court. Litigants start proceedings in that forum for injunctive (restraining orders) and other relief, including money damages. Some litigants sue the other party for breach of a fiduciary duty in the other forum or sue to recover items of property (replevin) or money (conversion). Sometimes the state court is called upon to address alleged breaches of contract or matters pertaining to administration of trusts related to the decedent’s estate.
In Tom’s case the claims seem to be less esoteric and more direct. His daughters claim that his widow deprived them of their role in “equal participation” in determining how his works are released. In short, their argument is that this phrase means that the two of them have a majority vote representing two thirds of the three ladies handling the decisions.
That position and the argument is the same as that which they advanced in the probate court dispute. What motivates advancing the same argument in another court? Perhaps it is that his daughters are actually forum or judge shopping. It could be that they sense that the probate court forum favors Dana. Their logic may not be that far off. It is often asserted that a probate or Surrogate’s Court is a friendly forum for the estate and the individuals designated by the decedent to handle the estate. The thinking is that the probate court is overly protective of the estate and the decedent’s nominated fiduciary – often bending over backwards in deferential accommodation to the alleged talismanic “decedent’s intent”. It is also possible that the daughters, after having filed their competing petition in the probate court, sense an unfavorable reception or perhaps even an imminent defeat. In addition, the daughters have now upped the ante by seeking financial damages ($5.0M) from Dana in the state court case. That claim is based on the contention that Dana usurped estate assets to the detriment of the daughters.
The daughters also made the classic move to justify activity in state court, getting around the probate court, by making Tom Petty Unlimited the plaintiff in the case they just started. It is an LLC which was formed in March of 2018, to manage the assets after Tom’s death. As we continue to learn more, it seems that this entity controls Tom’s rights as a recording artist and his memorabilia. In the suit the claim is advanced that Tom’s widow created another company, Tom Petty Legacy, to usurp the other LLC’s business and misappropriate its assets.
Tom is a classic rocker and despite his death his work is a staple for classic rock outlets. It is widely enjoyed and listened to every day. While his music plays, it certainly is becoming more apparent that his estate plan will unfold in the courts with the ultimate decisions pertinent to management and control being made by the courts rather than his family.