At a hearing in suburban Minneapolis this morning, attorneys representing Prince's siblings urged a Minnesota state judge to quickly approve a proposed procedure for demonstrating if a blood relationship to the late pop superstar exists. But a cautious Judge Kevin Eide concluded the two-hour hearing at the Carver County District Court in Chaska, Minnesota, by announcing that he would continue to receive written arguments on the matter for two more weeks before issuing a decision.
Addressing a courtroom crowded with more than 20 lawyers representing 11 prospective heirs, Judge Eide said that just as Prince was a unique artist, the case presented a unique set of issues for the court to decide. Because Prince apparently died without a will, his estate will be distributed according to Minnesota probate law and parentage law. The judge said he needed time to determine just how those two areas of law intersected in this case.
“I want to make sure we get this right before we start excluding people,” Judge Eide said.
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The stakes are high for Prince's possible heirs. They're vying not only for a slice of his estate, valued between $100 and $300 million, but a say in how his legacy -- and his music -- will be preserved and marketed.
Five likely heirs were present at today's hearing, including four of Prince's half-siblings and his sister, Tyka Nelson, whose long, rainbow-tinted hair suggested that she shared some of her late brother's stylish flair.
Prince's younger half-brother, Omar Baker, made even more of an impression. His hairstyle and thin beard mimicked Prince's '90s look, and he'd even had Prince's androgynous glyph shaved into the side of his hair. Prince's other step-siblings -- Sharon, Norrine, and John -- were more conventionally attired.
What may have been even more notable about Baker, however, was his rather famous attorney. He was represented by Van Jones, the political activist and former White House advisor who assisted Prince in choosing which humanitarian causes to support.
On her initial probate filing, Nelson listed herself and these five step-siblings as known heirs, along with another step-brother, Alfred Jackson, who was not present.
Others have come forward since then to claim a family relationship with Prince, five of whom were represented at the hearing by attorneys.
Brianna and Victoria Nelson claim to be Prince's niece and grand-niece, Darcell Gresham Johnston and Venita Jackson Leverette both contend they are Prince's step-sisters, and Carlin Q. Williams says he's Prince's son (even though his DNA test has apparently shown that he is not, according to the AP; this fact was not raised during the hearing).
The hearing centered on a protocol for evaluating claims of heirship proposed by Bremer Trust, the court-appointed special administrator for the estate.
Under Bremer's plan, potential heirs must first respond to a 16-question survey. Based on their responses (and supporting documentation), the administrator decides whether to accept or reject a claim, or whether genetic testing is needed before making a decision.
No direct challenge was raised to the DNA testing procedures themselves. Instead, some of the possible heirs questioned the way Bremer interpreted Minnesota probate and parentage law.
David Crosby, an attorney for Bremer, said that Minnesota law is clear about who is considered a parent and who is considered a sibling for the purposes of dividing up an estate.
The attorneys for Tyka Nelson and the step-siblings on the initial petition supported Bremer's position. Attorneys for the other claimants, however, argued that there were ambiguities in the law the court needed to address. The two camps were also divided over the speed with which they wanted the question of heirship settled.
Attorneys representing Nelson and the step-siblings joined Bremer in stressing a need for urgency. The estate is currently losing money because Prince's music cannot be effectively marketed until his heirs are determined, these parties argued.
“Delay can damage this estate. That's a reality of this business,” said Ken Abdo, who represents three of Prince's step-siblings.
Brian Dillon, an attorney for Tyka Nelson, made a more personal appeal for speeding the decision along as well. "The family needs some closure," he told the court.
Attorneys for the other prospective heirs asked Judge Eide to proceed with caution before excluding their claims.
“I would ask that the court make take more time to sort through the complexity of these issues,” said Celiza Braganga, an attorney representing Brianna and Victoria Nelson. “We need to do this right.”
In his concluding remarks, Judge Eide seemed to strike a balance between two competing needs: to fully address the legal questions raised by the case and to settle the estate as quickly as possible.
Though he set aside a two-week period for evaluating the competing arguments, he also said he was inclined to submit his eventual order directly to an appeals court, to eliminate any further delay down the road.
Of course, none of these issues would have arisen if Prince had left a will. But Bremer attorney Crosby seemed doubtful that one would be discovered. The administrator had searched through thousands of boxes in four physical locations, he said.
“There's no indication that a will exists, and we basically now have looked under every box lid,” Crosby said.