"Before the end of the year, Prince's estate will be bankrupt," Nelson tells Billboard, three years after her brother's death.
Sharon Nelson, Prince’s half-sister and one of the six heirs to the late funk legend’s estate, says that three years after her brother's death, virtually nothing about his estate has been settled. The infighting between the heirs and Comerica Bank & Trust, which is administrating Prince's estate, has resulted in thousands of court filings and racked up millions of dollars in legal fees, without any money or real estate assets being distributed to the late artist's beneficiaries.
If the bank's powers are not curbed, she predicts, "Prince’s estate will be bankrupt by the end of the year.”
“Prince is not resting in peace while this is going on,” says Nelson, 79, a retired accounts payable administrator. “He's very upset what these people have done to his estate. It's really sad.”
Nelson, who says she lives off her Social Security and pension, adds that the legal costs connected to the estate battle have become so enormous that her only option is to prepare her own motions and filings and to represent herself in court. Following the “Purple Rain” singer’s 2016 death due to an accidental fentanyl overdose, 45 people came forward claiming they were legitimate heirs to the estate, which reportedly has been valued between $100 million and $300 million. Prince’s siblings -- his full sister Tyka Nelson, his half brothers Omarr Baker, Alfred Jackson, John R. Nelson and his half-sisters Sharon and Norrine Nelson -- had to hire their own attorneys to defend their interests, and Nelson says that in doing so, they racked up more than $3 million in legal fees, which they had no ability to pay. Their attorneys have since bowed out and filed liens against the heirs' claims with the estate.
"We cannot afford an attorney," she says. "You walk through the door and it’s $400. Now we write our own affidavits and petitions."
Nelson says that she and the other heirs have yet to receive any distribution of her late brother’s assets. She said some of her other siblings are barely scraping by, adding that she recently came to the aid of her brother John, also an heir, who couldn't afford to buy baby clothes for his newborn grandchild.
Nelson says that she has been able to manage financially because “I am a senior citizen and I have worked all my life. I have a pension and Social Security where the others do not." She explains her fellow heirs "were used to calling Prince whenever they needed something."
Save for a contractually specified $100,000 payment distributed to each heir following a 2016 Prince tribute concert, Nelson says she and her five siblings have yet to receive any kind of asset distribution, Yet, she says, Comerica continues to be paid $125,000 a month for administering the estate. "Prince ran his estate with less than five people," Nelson says. "One day I went to a court hearing and there were 40 attorneys trying to figure out what Prince did."
Nelson told Billboard that Comerica continues to rack up what she views as needless expenses, such as bringing four to five people from its Detroit office to hearings in Minneapolis and paying $90,000 a month to store Prince’s unreleased songs in a vault in Los Angeles. In her court filings regarding the vault, Nelson also wrote that "upon learning that the Vault’s contents had been taken from Paisley Park without my knowledge, I felt betrayed and shocked by Comerica’s actions.” She also indicated she did not learn the contents had been moved until 30 days after it had happened. Building a new vault in Minneapolis, she wrote, would have even been a more cost-effective option.
The more than 2,711 court filings -- motions, affidavits, memos, depositions, schedules -- in Prince’s probate case are evidence of the complexity of administering an intestate estate and, Nelson says, of the animosity between the heirs and Comerica. Bank officials have stated in court filings that there can be no distribution to the heirs until a tax bill from the Internal Revenue Service estimated by the heirs at $31 million is settled. Nelson says she finds the predicament baffling considering Prince died with $97 million in cash and $30 million to $40 million in real estate holdings. The heirs are currently asking the court to permanently limit the bank’s powers as the estate’s personal representative. A hearing has been set on that matter for May 20.
“Everything that is a problem, we have to go to court,” says Nelson. “That is why you see all those thousands of petitions.”
When Prince died in 2016, he left behind no will. Under Minnesota probate law, the probate courts were tasked with appointing an administrator to distribute and manage the estate. Ultimately, it was determined that his assets would be distributed equally among his surviving six siblings. Comerica was appointed as personal representative of the estate on Feb. 1, 2017, taking over after Bremer Trust served as a special administrator for nine months. The move was initially approved by the heirs, but from the start, their relationship with Comerica has been strained.
Nelson and two of the other heirs filed to permanently remove Comerica in October 2017 after a heated meeting during which, according to court papers, Comerica officials were allegedly verbally abusive and made Nelson feel physically threatened. In court papers filed by Comerica's lawyers, the bank denied that it has been unresponsive to the heirs saying instead that, despite the frayed relations, "Comerica continues to prioritize communication with the Heirs.” The bank also claimed that it is doing what it can to reduce fees but that its responsibilities include overseeing an estate, operating multiple entertainment businesses, overseeing a real estate portfolio and museum, archiving a vast quantity of audio and video assets and safeguarding personal property.
Asked to comment for this story, Comerica issued the following statement: "The estate of Prince Rogers Nelson is a court-supervised estate, which places strict reporting and judicial oversight requirements on Comerica as the Personal Representative. Comerica has complied with all legal and ethical requirements during its administration of the estate. Comerica’s fees and those of the estate’s attorneys are filed with and approved by the Court every four months with complete transparency to the heirs. The attorneys’ fees paid by the estate have been court-approved as reasonable and necessary for the benefit of the estate.
"The estate tax return has been filed and is currently under audit by the IRS and the Minnesota Department of Revenue," the bank's statement continued. "Comerica has made and will continue to make all required estate tax payments in accordance with applicable law. Comerica generates monthly account statements that specify each item of revenue and expense, including the estate tax payments. These statements are provided on a monthly basis to the Heirs to ensure complete transparency."
In December 2017, Judge Kevin Eide ultimately denied the petition to remove Comerica, finding that it was not in the best interest of the estate, but he agreed that steps needed to be taken to improve relations between the groups. According to Nelson, both sides approved a mediator to be present during meetings and Comerica agreed to balance its administrative rights with the heirs' desire to be included and consulted in matters.
“I have had to fight them because you can’t trust them,” Nelson says. "You will wake up one day and Paisley Park won’t be there. I’m serious. They are selling his assets little by little. They are going to be all gone." The estate has sold Prince's 188-acre property along Galpin Boulevard in Chanhassen, Minn., where he once lived in a yellow mansion. (A recording studio was also located on the grounds.)
Nelson says that after Prince died, "We paid all his bills and we had money left, but Comerica is spending it recklessly and frivolously on projects that they think are important." She adds that, were he alive, "Prince wouldn’t have had anything to do with these projects," which include an e-commerce merchandise deal as well as a proposed Prince store at the Minneapolis airport. “He would never do that,” she says.
Nelson says Prince's heirs are prepared to do what they can to take back control of the estate. “It’s a fight,” she says. “You need to have your boxing gloves on."