Family of Prince's 'Brother' Duane Nelson Sr. Fights for Piece of $300M Estate

Prince performs during the Purple Rain tour.
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Prince performs during the Purple Rain tour.

A lack of genetic connection could doom their claims.

Prince sometimes referred to Duane J. Nelson Sr. as his brother when both men were still alive, and on Friday afternoon (Oct. 21), a Minnesota state judge set out to determine whether such an unofficial family relationship might allow Duane Nelson’s heirs to inherit a portion of the late superstar’s estimated $300 million estate, or whether the lack of a genetic connection would doom their claims.

Though the hearing zeroed in on a rather arcane aspect of Minnesota probate law, it also offered a glimpse into the complicated relationships between the members of Prince’s extended family.

Attorneys representing Duane Nelson’s heirs contended that state law did not necessarily require them to have a genetic relationship with Prince in order to claim a share of his estate. This position was met with resistance from Bremer Trust, the court-appointed special administrator for Prince’s estate, as well as those relatives that the court had already recognized as Prince’s heirs.

Prince died of an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl on April 21. Because he apparently did not leave a will, and was survived by no parents, spouse or children, his estate will be divided between his siblings and half-siblings.

The court has already determined that six people are Prince’s presumptive heirs: Prince’s full sister Tyka Nelson and five half-siblings: Noreen, Sharon and John Nelson, Alfred Jackson, and Omarr Baker.

Judge Eide has dismissed numerous claims from people calling themselves Prince’s siblings and children. But he scheduled a special hearing to evaluate the legal basis for claims from the descendants of Duane Nelson.

Duane Nelson Sr., who many believed to be Prince’s brother during his lifetime, died in 2011. Brianna Nelson is his daughter, and Victoria Nelson, a minor, is the daughter of his son, the late Duane Nelson Jr., who died in 2006.

Brianna and Victoria Nelson filed claims shortly after Prince’s death. Another man who says he is Duane’s son, Corey Simmons, filed a claim separately last month.

Celiza Braganca, the attorney representing Brianna and Victoria Nelson, argued that although Duane might not be the biological son of Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, the fact that John always treated Duane as a son created a family relationship.

“Courts around the country have wrestled with the reality of families, as opposed to the legalistic definition of families,” Berganza told the judge. “That’s what we’re talking about here.”

When the judge noted that after John Nelson’s death, Duane Nelson had not filed a claim in the probate proceeding, Braganca replied that Duane had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and “did not have the capacity to appear and oppose his entire family.”

Furthermore, she said, although John Nelson had supposedly died intestate, a will was discovered among Prince’s papers after his death, as well as drafts for another will that referred to Duane Nelson as John’s son.

Attorneys representing Prince’s half-siblings responded that the Minnesota probate code strictly limited parent-child relationships to those instances where there is a genetic relationship, a legal adoption or reproductive assistance.

“This is not a family dispute,” said attorney Adam P. Gislason, who represents three of Prince’s half-siblings. “This is a case about the law; the law is clear.”

In addition, attorney Tom Kane, representing Prince’s half-brother Omarr Baker, contended that the court documents filed by Duane Nelson’s heirs lacked factual support for their claims.

Offering evidence of times John had held Duane out as his son in response, Braganza suggested a history of family strife.

On one occasion, Braganza said, Prince’s half-sister Noreen told John that Duane “was not a real Nelson.” John’s response, according to the attorney, was, “That’s not true, he’s my son.”

Braganza also mentioned a federal copyright suit filed against Prince by his late half-sister Lorna (who claimed he’d based his hit “U Got the Look” on a composition of hers). The action named John and Duane Nelson as co-defendants, and at no point during the proceedings did John deny that Duane was his son, the attorney said.

Judge Eide then reminded all parties that this hearing was solely to determine if Duane Nelson’s heirs had a legal basis to proceed and not to determine if there was evidence to prove that their claims were valid.

More than a dozen attorneys crowded into the courtroom. Brianna Nelson was present, as were several of Prince’s half-siblings and Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson, recognizable as always by the rainbow swirl in her otherwise gray hair.

If the judge allows the claims to proceed, there is an evidentiary hearing already scheduled for November.

With a nine-figure tax bill looming next year -- perhaps half the value of the estate -- any delay in making a final determination of Prince’s heirs could prove costly.

The judge closed the proceedings by announcing that he would meet in private with several of the attorneys to talk “confidential business relationships.” He jokingly warned the press and the public that a bailiff would be posted outside the meeting room, adding, “So don’t try to weasel your way in.”